I was asked on Quora to give a list of my favorite hip-hop songs, because what better source is there than a forty-year-old white dad? (I am literally a mountain climber who plays the electric guitar.) I did grow up in New York City in the 80s, and I do love the music. But ultimately, I’m a tourist in this culture. For a more definitive survey, ask Questlove or someone. These are just songs that I like.
When we talk about Auto-Tune, we’re talking about two different things. There’s the intended use, which is to subtly correct pitch problems (and not just with vocalists; it’s extremely useful for horns and strings.) The ubiquity of pitch correction in the studio should be no great mystery; it’s a tremendous time-saver.
But usually when we talk about Auto-Tune, we’re talking about the “Cher Effect,” the sound you get when you set the Retune Speed setting to zero. The Cher Effect is used so often in pop music because it’s richly expressive of our emotional experience of the world: technology-saturated, alienated, unreal. My experience with Auto-Tune as a musician has felt like stepping out the door of a spaceship to explore a whole new sonic planet. Auto-Tune turns the voice into a keyboard synth, and we are only just beginning to understand its creative possibilities. (Warning: explicit lyrics throughout.)
This is the third in a series of posts documenting the development of Play With Your Music, a music production MOOC jointly presented by P2PU, NYU and MIT. See also the first and second posts.
So, you’ve learned how to listen closely and analytically. The next step is to get your hands on some multitrack stems and do mixes of your own. Participants in PWYM do a “convergent mix” — you’re given a set of separated instrumental and vocal tracks, and you need to mix them so they match the given finished product. PWYM folks work with stems of “Air Traffic Control” by Clara Berry, using our cool in-browser mixing board. The beauty of the browser mixer is that the fader settings get automatically inserted into the URL, so once you’re done, anyone else can hear your mix by opening that URL in their own browser.
Here’s an email conversation I’ve been having with my friend Greg Brown about Kanye West’s recent albums. Greg is a classical composer and performer with a much more avant-garde sensibility than mine. The exchange is lightly edited for clarity.
Greg: I’ve been listening to 808s and Heartbreak and Twisted Fantasy. I’m really enjoying them. Far more than I thought I would. I think Auto-tune here is somehow protective for Kanye when he is expressing emotion in a genre where that is not really smiled on. I haven’t quite put my finger on it, but I think the dehumanizing of the human voice is somehow a foil for the expression of inner turmoil. It’s haunting.
Ethan: Yes! Absolutely. The Auto-tune gives Ye a way to be the sensitive, vulnerable singer, as opposed to the swaggering rapper. And I like the similar sonic palettes between 808s and Fantasy, except 808s is sparse and Fantasy is full. And the thing of using tuned 808 kick drums to play the basslines is so hip.
Greg: The hard part for me to wrap my head around is the fact that Auto-tune is a filter, a dehumanizer, and it manages to make Kanye both closer and more human.
Ethan: I have a broader philosophical idea brewing about the concepts of “dehumanizing” and “posthuman” and how they’re really kind of meaningless, at least as applied to music. How can things that humans create be dehumanizing? Everyone involved in the production of Kanye’s albums is human. Auto-tune is a novel way of sounding human, but it’s still human, just like the sound of reverb or EQ or compression.
Greg: Yes — I have similar issues with natural vs. unnatural in general. Humans are natural, therefore everything we do is also natural.
The first time I heard Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” was courtesy of Motorcycle Guy, a prominent Brooklyn eccentric who drives around on a tricked-out motorcycle bedecked with lights and equipped with a powerful sound system. I encounter him every so often and he’s always bumping some good funk, soul or R&B. One night, he was playing what I thought was an extreme remix of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” by Michael Jackson, with the end chant slowed down and pitch-shifted radically. As it turns out, I got the chronology reversed. Here’s Manu Dibango’s song:
The bassline is neglected by most non-musicians. But if you want to write or produce music, you quickly find out how important it is. The bassline is the foundation of the whole musical structure, both rhythmically and harmonically. The best basslines interlock with the drums and other rhythm instruments to propel the groove, without you necessarily even noticing them. I like the complex walking lines in jazz and melodic lines in highbrow rock, but the ones that really hit me where I live are basic riffs that loop and loop until they lift you into an ecstatic trance.
Here are my favorite basslines of the last fifty years, across genres.
John Coltrane – “My Favorite Things”
Simple, hypnotic, effective. Read more.
John Coltrane – “Equinox”
Another devastatingly simple groove.
This week I’ve been all about Kanye West’s “Lost In The World,” the most gripping track on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Kanye is one of the few commercial producers with a high enough profile to be able to license whatever samples he wants, so he carries the banner of memetastic collage-based music in the mainstream, and god bless him for it. Click through for the song on YouTube.
There’s nothing going on in contemporary music that interests me more than the vibe of this track. The blend of electronic and tribal drums and Auto-tuned singing draws on the same sonic palette as “Love Lockdown,” which continues to be my favorite song of the 21st century, but “Lost In The World” is much bigger and denser.
As part of New York Social Media Week, I attended a panel entitled “The Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy of Social Media as Music’s Savior.” It was first thing in the morning, which really asks a lot from the music hipsters. I would normally have just live-tweeted this thing, but the wi-fi in the place was too weak, and besides, I figured it deserved a blog post. So here’s the more coherent, edited version of what I planned to post on Twitter. Since the event was dominated by Kanye West from the title on down, I’ll be featuring Twitter-centric pictures of him.
Classical music recordings are usually straightforward snapshots of live performances. Sometimes recordings are spliced together from multiple takes or overdubbed, but this practice is considered by classical musicians to be highly shameful. Glenn Gould had a very different attitude toward the studio. He loved working there, and viewed it as a more valuable creative outlet than the concert stage. At age thirty-one, he stopped performing live altogether to focus on recording and writing. He was outspokenly in favor of tape editing and other “artificial” studio techniques.
Sample-based music isn’t stealing. It’s valuable and important. It shows the way toward a future for recorded music that’s more in continuity with music’s past. Recordings are cool and everything, but they encourage passivity. If I buy a recording, I can listen to it or dance to it, both fine activities, but what if I want to go further? What if I want to engage with it, converse with it, customize it or adapt it to my own needs? According to the law, I can’t. This flies in the face of the uncountable centuries of music practice that predate the invention of recordings. Before recordings, if you wanted to hear music, someone needed to play or sing it. To learn how to play or sing, you have to learn and interpret a ton of music by other people. The normal method for passing music along for nearly all of human history was by oral tradition, and a lot of adaptation and reinterpretation was an inevitable part of this transmission process.
In the modern world, most of the music you encounter is in recorded form. Adapting or customizing music is going to continue as it has for uncountable centuries. To adapt or customize a recording usually requires sampling. As it stands, the law is in the way. We need open-source music like we need open-source software.