Wednesday, April 28, 2004

blip bloop

I've been engaged in a long-running debate on hip-hop with the fantastic trombonist Robin Eubanks (of Dave Holland Quintet and Steve Coleman fame, among countless others, including early Sugar Hill Records sessions!). As iTunes played Wiley's "Got Somebody" for me, his musicianly point of view suddenly seemed to run aground of a very different reality.

When "Got Somebody"'s full beat kicks in 25 seconds in, the traditional elements (drums, tuned instruments) get overridden by parasitic "extra-musical" noises (a frog's croak being among the more readily identifiable*). Even though there's a clear melody that carries over from the intro, the sounds that swamp it modify the very way the pitched sounds are heard. At best, they are stripped of their "pitched-ness" and recast as being no more important than an electronic blip or that frog. The confused, joyous mass of pitches, riffs and parasites becomes something like a percussion piece, as pitches and harmony exist haphazardly, as a by-product of collective layers of sound. A totally different bunch of UK musicians Wiley could be likened to at moments (and yes, this is a stretch) are the "post-AMM nebula," who embrace a non-hierarchical approach to sound and "egoless" group ethic (represented in "Got Somebody" by the submerging of melody into noise). Of course, Wiley would have to change a lot (not that I particularly want him to) to really get close to the improvised music crowd, but I'm not the first to make the connection.

When the high A comes at the 1:11 mark (interestingly, just as Wiley makes the transition from "it was so cold, I could have took my lover's life" to "I've got somebody now:" a less obvious and cloying negative to the guitar entering the Black Eyed Peas' "Shut Up" just as the relationship starts to sour), it's so weird: the note itself is clear, high in the mix and notable because it hasn't been heard before, but in the context, and despite the first note of the main melody being an A (I think) an octave lower, it sounds completely alien and just as extra-musical as that frog. That's just the first time you hear it, though, as it repeats and falls easily into place as part of the chorus. Still, that first time it comes in is absolutely thrilling.

Wiley also does some more minimal stuff. "Goin Mad" is at its most provocative at the end: after a breakdown consisting of an inner motivational "get yourself together" monologue and a nicely random and wilfully aimless keyboard line, the main beat, a 1-2-3 thump, returns completely unadorned, opening up fantastic space for Wiley to rap in.

What makes "Got Somebody" (the confused mass of pitched and non-pitched sounds) and "Goin Mad" (the tongue-in-cheek naked metronomic beat) good are precisely those elements that seem the least musical, which may be why, as a musician of a pre-hip-hop generation, Robin has a bit of difficulty intuitively grasping the essence of hip-hop.**

* It might not actually be a frog (it could be one of those stick over corrugated surface wooden percussion instruments), but it sounds like one to me.
** I know some people don't like "grime" being called "hip-hop," but I don't hear it as being musically that far away from hip-hop.