et hop! the difficult child

so i presented you in the little et hop!-series a trip through hip hop – very subjective and partly in a very short fashion. but more or less it follows my experiences with hip hop and its many different formulations. but i left out two topics that i will explore in this and the next post. in this post i would like to present a somewhat different story of hip hop, to a degree even leaving the genre of hip hop.

so let’s go back to the beginning, again. this time i would like to explore a different kind of hip hop – a substyle that then partly left the home of hip hop and wandered the world finding another home – techno. this time i would like to present you the difficult child of hip hop: electro.

i would like to start with planet rock by africa bambaataa – if you would like to have a look and a listen again, i posted the video in my first et hop!-post here. it is a good starting point, because i will now (somewhat artificially) try to pitch three strains of hip hop against each other. first we have something i would like to call “party-hip hop”. maybe the original version of hip hop – after all hip hop was first party music, developed end of the 1970’s at block parties. using a wide range of influences, i would like to point out especially one influence: james brown. the godfather of funk and soul. i guess james brown must be the most sampled musician in hip hop, he was and still is highly influental – well, he was just a great artist. lyrically “party hip hop” is about, well, parties, girls, and bragging, and more parties…

a second strain i would like to call “cnn-hip hop”, this going back to the saying of public enemy (if i remember that correctly) that hip hop is the cnn of the black people of america. the iconic track here is certainly grandmaster flash‘s the message. and of course everything by public enemy. musically pretty close to “party hip hop” (although over time getting harder) i would like to put it also in the tradition of the funk of james brown. lyrically it is political, be it already through the description of daily life, be it by directly teaching history and politics (yep, that’s where “infotainment” comes from).

and the third early strain i would like to call: electro. and africa bambaataas is the prime example for it. musically it is for me less in the tradition of james brown, but in the tradition of sly stone and especially parliament and funkadelic. what’s the difference to james brown? i do not want to go into the musical differences but point out to other differences. first is the presentation. while james brown was certainly a master of ceremony with a fantastically tight backing band, parliament / funkadelic were more something of a collective. in the person of george clinton they also had their bandleader, but in concerts it looked certainly less focused on one person. the second difference is the inventing of stories. while james brown was singing about life “as we know it” and presented himself as james brown, especially funkadelic invented characters and also a whole universe of spaceships and aliens and so on. to my observation africa bambaataa is the first to take this up in the early hip hop days. the idea of a collective, of a special social group that comes together thanks to the music (one nation under a groove), a group that shares beyond the same music ideals of how to live (together). and africa bambaataa also took up the rather, hm, eccentric way to present his music. we will see later on that these elements surface again in some other place.

so where “party hip hop” and “cnn hip hop” are rather in a tradition of james brown and then also of other soul and funk acts as well as disco and reggae, the electro tradition seems closer to the funk of parliament / funkadelic (and in case you wonder: i would put most gangsta hip hop in the category of “party hip hop”, even if it tries hard to mask as “cnn hip hop”).

but then to electro there has been another source of inspiration: kraftwerk. the german band that made already in the mid-seventies electronic music. their musical aesthetic has obviously been a huge influence – and on africa bambaataa’s planet rock you hear bits of two tracks of them. let me say a couple of words on kraftwerk, then. often referenced as pioneers of electronic music and even idealized i do have some problems with descriptions of kraftwerk as the inventors of electronic music and or a revolutionary band as well as with the band and their music. obviously hearing their early work has been something of a shock to a whole generation of artists in america. kraftwek always pops up in quite some interviews especially with pioneers of american electronic music as a major influence. fair enough. it is interesting to note, though, that this is far less the case in interviews with european artists. this might be due to the fact that kraftwerk were not the only ones doing electronic music at the time. electronic music actually has been made as early as in the fifties (if you take the theremin, a strange instrument as the the beginning of electronic music it is actually early 20th century – but i’m being a smartass). but there was a problem with using electronics: it was expensive and therefore usually only available to repectable avantgarde composers/musicians being allowed to use the infrastructure of “labs” at radio-studios or universities. of course that music did not have a big audience and i guess it was not easy to get to hear it. but starting in the seventies, quite some european bands out of a more “popular” context, and especially german bands, started to experiment with electronica. here we should not forget pink floyd, and certainly mention tangerine dream and (connected to them) klaus schulze as well as some recordings of can. and in france a certain jean michel jarre started to make rather strange records for his time, too. so kraftwerk were certainly one of the early ones – but not the only ones. but they actually did something quite unique: first they insisted on “the machine”. the idea is that man is actually an extension of the machine. this was certainly quite a provocation to the psychedelic groove of the seventies – imagewise it meant that they cut their hair and dressed in suits when everybody else was still doing the the hippielook. together with that they established and perfected their sound aesthetic which they are famous for: the cold, machinistic sounding music. in a way they sounded digital before digital music existed. but then also the monotone aspects and the topic of the machine in music were not really new: the monotone and repetitive had been explored by comosers already (minimalism and “serielle komposition”), and the topic of machines, the humans, modern society has been an important topic already for the futurists in the early 20th century. so for me the new thing that kraftwerk brought to music is their aesthetic, their sound-design – and then they made something possible: the crossover of all the above mentioned ideas and influences, which are primarly high-brow art into popmusic. certainly the adding of a harder beat then let’s say tangerine dream as well as their talent for catchy little melodies was doing the trick. so i do appreciate and respect them for that. and only for that. because then my problem with kraftwerk starts: relistening to their records, i find them again not that stunning. i do find it partly silly (radioactivity) and the good parts are actually pop with little and usually quite simple melodies and some rather, well, simple lyrics, too (the model). but then kraftwerk always cultivated their image as making something like high art. and that’s where for me it gets just plain boring: they are not. for me they are much closer to depeche mode then to stockhausen (although they do share with stockhausen the strong tendency to be delusional). the comparison to depeche mode is for me a good one: both bands manged to survive with an actually slightly outdated electronic sound – avoiding the sad fate of bands like front 242 or d.a.f. that made some fantastic records, but seem to have been eaten up by the fast evolution of music-making technology. so while depeche mode seem to very conscious of what they are, what they do and where they stand and keep on being creative and writing catchy popsongs, kraftwerk just put on that big air of the mysterious artist that came out of nowhere, is a genius and creates ART. well, the only fun record they made since the early 1980’s was tour de france – and this because it amused me how extremly homoerotic this track and how nobody seemed to want to notice. to make it even uglier, kraftwerk seem to be more busy suing the illegitime use of “their work” then with anything else – in germany they even threaten to sue you if you sell your old kraftwerk records on ebay. so to stop me now ranting on and on: kraftwerk should be appreciated for popularizing certain aesthetics and topics and for influencing some truly great artists – but in 2008, they make it very hard for me to still respect them.

so – let’s get back to the original topic of this post. how about some music? africa bambaataa was not the only one: interesting enoughsome great electro records came out all around the same time. the ones i would like to mention is hashim‘s al nayifish – a classic from the early eighties. and i found on youtube a nice little snippet of the song with some early breakbeating to it. enjoy:

then there is this other track from around the same time – a great rack, a track that still excites me. unfortunately there is no video to it, so you get the next best thing: it’s use as a sample in a much newer track. i am talking about cybotron‘s clear. great stuff. and please note that one member of cybotron was juan atkins, who later rase to fame as one of detroits finest artists. as a reminder here missy elliott’s loose control, that is based on a sample of clear. it is interesting that this is one of the few re-entries of electro into hip hop:

and if you want to hear the original, you can get the whole record of cybotron, also called clear, over here.

juan atkins quite early left the group again, but not only raised to fame as a techno producer, he also continued and continues to make electro, very classic electro under one of his aliases: model 500. here the track night drive, taped live last year in japan:

and if you would like some more model 500, here a short live recording from 1998.

in general electro was only successful underground – somehow the vocoder-voices and the topics of robots and aliens and abandoned cities at night, as well as the cold aesthetic of the music never reached mass-appeal. and even as dance-music it is difficult. i guess it is also due to the factthat an electro evening will usually not generate the same euphoria and extasy as other styles of dance music. but the influence has been there and is still there: in hip hop, there is miami bass taking up some of the aesthetic of electro. and in the u.k. its aesthetic (like other hip hop) influenced various artists. as a kind of pop-hybrid electro even saw a chart success: remember paul hardcastle‘s 19?

and yes, the man is still active – you can visit his website here.

you can follow the influence of electro in the electronic music especially in the u.k. through many styles: be it breakbeat and then in the darker side of drum ‘n’ bass (that at times shared also the thematic obsession of the extraterrestrial and technology) to techno, of course (the highly respected artist dave clarke, better known for his hard techno tracks, published quite early on an electro mix called electro boogie in the then famous x-mix series) to the beat experimentation of some of aphex twin and squarepusher’s work.

but electro found his home back in america, in detroit. not only have quite a lot of artists especially in detroit stayed true to the original aesthetic of electro, but also took up the ideas of community and of inventing their own world / narratives in the tradition of kraftwerk / funkadelic / afrika bambaataa. a first mention should go out to tommy hamilton and keith tucker, better known as aux 88. as their website states: detroit electro elite. not much i can add to that. maybe just one thing: they are for me exceptional because they really stayed “with electro”. most artists produce not only electro, but also detroit techno or more general electronic music. but aux 88 are really disciples of electro… so i propose you a recording from their live performance at the detroit electronic music festival from last year. here you get aux 88 live at the demf 2007.

then i had the chance once to meet keith tucker (one half of aux 88) in person. a very nice man. he also records as a solo artist under the names of keith tucker, dj k1, kt19941, and optic nerve. yeah, he is quite a bunch – but he always stays true to electro. his brand of electro although seems to me more naked, more dry – while the electro of let’s say model 500 evokes for me drives through empty industrial areas, keith tucker’s music would for me also fit for a drive through the desert of nevada at night. to illustrate that i loaded up his lifeform ep that also includes a track called area 51. so here you get the lifeform ep by kt-19941, ripped from vinyl@224. enjoy! and please do visit his website.

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and now i would like to present the ideological succesors to what i called the third line of hip hop. they invented a whole mythology of being from outer space. that might seem some kind of silly retro science fiction fantasy: but it is not. it is rather an alternative political narrative. inventing another history for its own minority, escaping. it is not exactly escaping history – these artists are very history-conscious and do know their history. it is therefore more precisely escaping the dominant narratives, these narratives that put members of a minority (here black americans) in a certain context and assign specific identities and roles. and to create a new context, one has to invent a new narrative, a new history. this history allows therefore for a freer play with identity and roles. and it additionally does not only reframe the history of a minority, it also puts through the theme of aliens and space the emphasis on the future then rather on the past. there we see even a connection to the beat generation, which also saw going into space (also quite literally) as the possibility for human kind to raise to a new level. connected to that is the positive attitude to technology – as long as it is used by the people to advance human kind. while kraftwerk had the attitude that humans are just the extension of the machine (which then became more elaborated in the idea of the cyborg), technology and music-machines are now seen as weapons, too. weapons for social change. embodied is this ideology in one of the most mythical collectives of detroit techno, underground resistance. musically definitly techno they also recorded quite a bit of electro tracks. founded originally by jeff mills, robert hood and mike banks, it became after a couple of years the project of mike banks and a lot of associated artists. besides inventing their own universe and their own identities, undergound resistance has always been outspoken on political issues – and put their ideology also into action. besides participating in projects for their local community, they also showed it through their dealing with was is called the music industry and media: radically independent in production and distribution, also interviews have been rare and identities are often hidden: the focus should be on the music and on the context that is usually provided on the sleeves of the records, the tracktitles and in the music itself. yes, demanding music. but worth getting into it: showing a rather unique way to connect music, the social, and the political. and on top of it the music is very good. for both (music and their specific context / ideology) underground resistance are highly respected and continue to be very influental – and are ironically something like stars of electronic music . to give you a better idea, i would like you to listen now to their great release interstellar fugitives. tracks of different artists under different disguises are collected on that record. musically there is quite a lot of electro: but a lot harsher and harder version then from the artists presented above. also it is interesting that this record provides a wider musical context, too: there are some techno tracks, something you could file under “experimental electronica” and also one house track, building a bridge to the history of black music. another obvious reference is again to kraftwerk: one track is called afrogermanic. i highly recommend you have a listen – for me this record is definitly a classic. so get underground resistance, interstellar fugitives (ripped from vinyl@224) here. and please visit their website.

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more? more underground resistance? for an early live recording you can go here. if you would like to have a listen to a newer liveset i recommend you visit this excellent website. and if you scroll down on this great site you will also find a set by optic nerve (keith tucker). and there are a lot more reasons to visit this site…

and electro might not be the most popular of musical genres, but it continues to be made: for some newer and lesser known artists i recommend the website of the label transient force, where you can also get an earfull – i.e. get some mixes and live pa’s.

MISSION:

TRANSIENT:
A SUDDEN PULSE OF VOLTAGE OR CURRENT

FORCE:
PHYSICAL POWER OR STRENGTH POSSESSED BY A LIVING BEING

TRANSIENT FORCE:
ENERGY THROUGH MECHANICS THAT PASSES THROUGH ALL LIVING MATTER.
THIS ENERGY IS NEITHER CONTROLLABLE NOR PREDICTABLE BUT YET
SYSTEMATIC. WE ARE HERE TO RANDOMLY EXTRACT SOUNDS OF FUTURE THOUGHT, CREATING MUSIC THAT IS EVERLASTING FOR ALL TO PROCESS.

and what happened with electro in the rest of the world? it was always around. many electronic artists do produce also electro tracks – although quite often hidden on some b-sides. but to my knowledge there aren’t any artists focussing only on electro (anthony rother in his beginnings maybe – but definitly not anymore). but every couple of years there is a track that raises awareness again for electro.

one of the big tunes was certainly i-f’s space invaders smoking grass:

and a couple of years later it was tiga‘s sunglasses at night:

both examples show that electro underwent especially in europe a couple of transformations, got combined with other influences: in i-f‘s case there is a strong influence of early techno pop (visage‘s fade to gray comes to mind), in the case of tiga he actually was one of the artists responsible for the trend electro clash. he consequently got signed on the label international gigolo records of the german dj hell – and here we see electro standing rather in a tradition of “the munich machine”, of the disco productions of giorgio moroder (most famous for donna summer‘s i feel love). so electro stayed in europe far less “pure” – this might be also due to the fact that the tradition of (popular) electronic music seems to be a lot more varied in europe.

and in one genre of electronic music electro made quite an impact, too: in ambient. the use of the typical electro beats is quite strong in the field of ambient, or better “electronic music to listen to” (ambient is for me even quieter), i.e. not created for the dancefloor. there are quite some examples for that – in the last years there has been especially the german label electrolux fostering that hybridisation.

so as a final acoustic example and to (finally) conclude this post i would like to propose something more quiet, something soothing from an artist that also published on the label electrolux. if you would like to hear the more quiet side of electro, i propose you get ruxpin‘s record radio here (also ripped from vinyl@224). how to describe his music? well, the cover for me transmits quite well the mood of this recording…

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if you would like to listen to a newer live-set, i propose you head over to another very good website providing high quality electronic music for your listening pleasure here. and you find ruxpin also on myspace.

2 Responses to “et hop! the difficult child”

  1. seppone Says:

    i think it’s a bit over-simplified to say electro is a child of hip hop. for sure hip hop was a major influence, but it’s main roots are (in my opinion) early electronic music & funk, with hip hop only on third place.
    never mind, nice little history

  2. sunbathinglizard Says:

    yes and no – first: “the difficult child” is just a good title, no?
    then i am not sure if influences can be classified that clearly. of course some of the early electro artists clearly state that the two main influences were parliamant and kraftwerk – so yes, early electronica and funk. but if we take africa bambaataa, then it is also clearly rooted in (self-defined) hip hop. another influence i see as important but not mentioned that often is actually disco. the later, “colder” disco of “the munich machine” giorgio moroder and mister megatron man patrick cowley. and well, as you realized my classification also serves to tell a nice little history…

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