What we talk about when we talk about Kanye West

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.

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Highbrow musicians need to bring the funk

Here are three stories about the relationship of funk to the avant-garde.

Meshell Ndegeocello at Tonic

In my twenties, I forced myself to experience a lot of very highbrow avant-garde music: free jazz, experimental electronica, and various combinations thereof. One such experience was a show at Tonic. I forget who was on the bill exactly, but it included Susie Ibarra and various other downtown luminaries. The group was ad hoc and clearly had never played together before. Their freeform improvisation was colorful and interesting, but tough to get an emotional hold on.

During the second set, Meshell Ndegeocello showed up, and the band invited her to sit in. She sat onstage with her bass for a minute or two, just listening to all the atonal noise swirling around her. Then she started playing a simple G minor funk groove, quietly but insistently. One by one, the other musicians locked into it, until the whole group was actually playing together, not just at the same time, but together. It was the best show I ever saw at Tonic. It also made me realize that the best musicians play stuff that makes sense.

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Who are some musicians whose work got better with age?

Ella Fitzgerald lost some of her range as she got older, but her soul and phrasing got deeper and deeper. The series of duet albums she did with Joe Pass late in her life are exquisite.

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The Amen Break

If you had to name the most influential drummers in contemporary music, who would you pick? If you’re a rock fan, you might go with Ringo Starr, John Bonham, or Keith Moon. A jazz fan might talk about Max Roach, Elvin Jones or Tony Williams. You probably wouldn’t think to name Gregory Cylvester Coleman. He was the drummer in a sixties soul band, The Winstons. His claim to fame is a five and a half second break in an obscure song called “Amen, Brother,” the B-side to the minor Winstons hit “Color Him Father.” That doesn’t sound like much of a case for Coleman’s importance. But his short drum break is widely considered to be the most-sampled recording in history, ahead of “The Funky Drummer” and “Apache” and “Cold Sweat” and all the rest of the classic breakbeats.

Here’s “Amen, Brother.” The famous drum break comes at 1:27.

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It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing

Today is the Fourth of July, and I can’t think of anything more patriotic than a post about our most significant contribution to world musical culture: swing. The title of this post refers to the classic Duke Ellington tune, sung here by Ray Nance. Check out the “yah yah” trombone by Tricky Sam Nanton.

The word “swing,” like the word “blues,” has multiple meanings, depending on context. Swing is both a genre and a technical music term describing a certain rhythm. The two are related, but the rhythm has long outlived the genre.

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Na Na Na Na

If you’ve been following my internet presence, you know how much I love flowcharts. So naturally, I was amused by this Randall Munroe cartoon:

I was reminded of it walking down the street the other day, because someone in our neighborhood in Brooklyn was blasting a dancehall track from their car that sampled the “na, na na na na, na na na naaah na na na na na na” part from “Land Of A Thousand Dances.” Then I got to thinking, this cartoon is actually an inspired recipe for a mashup.

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Cold Sweat in the Terrordome

The internet is home to a lot of questionably legal breakbeat collections like Drumaddikt and Cyberworm’s Sample Blog. “Cold Sweat” by James Brown is always included in these collections. It’s beloved equally by hip-hop and drum n bass producers. The break is at 4:30.

There’s probably a whole generation of producers who have sliced and diced this beat without having heard the actual song. I’m sure the same is true of “The Funky Drummer” and “Apache.” Beyond the break, “Cold Sweat” is a remarkable piece of music, way out ahead of its time. On James Brown’s album of the same name, it’s sitting alongside jazz standards like “Nature Boy” and some boilerplate blues and R&B. Compared to those more traditional songs, “Cold Sweat” sounds like it belongs in another era entirely. It has a radically simple two-chord structure and an African-influenced intricacy to its rhythmic groove, and it still sounds pretty fresh more than thirty years later.

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The Champ

Music blogs, magazines and cable channels like to run lists of the best albums of all time. Certain albums get listed again and again: Sgt Pepper, Pet Sounds, Highway 61 Revisited.

If you were to compile the best albums as measured by how often they get sampled by hip-hop producers, the list would look very different. There would be some famous names on it — James Brown, Led Zeppelin, P-Funk — but it wouldn’t necessarily include their best-known songs. And you’d see a lot of names that would be totally unfamiliar, unless you were a really devoted crate-digger. In the top ten, alongside tunes by The Honey Drippers, The Soul Searchers and The Incredible Bongo Band, you’d  find “The Champ” by The Mohawks.

Hip-hop fans will instantly recognize the organ riff that kicks off this song. It’s everywhere. Yet I had never heard of the Mohawks before looking into the source of the riff. They were an ad-hoc band of session musicians led by a British organist named Alan Hawkshaw, best known for his commercial jingles, library music and TV theme songs. He also played on records by Barbra Streisand and Olivia Newton John. Not the likeliest source of inspiration for Big Daddy Kane and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, is he? But the album grooves hard.

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