Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Music Criticism and the Jungle Brothers "Crazy Wisdom Masters" Bootleg (subtitled: aesthetics and failure)

      I want to make a bit of a tangent from the group of topics that I have been dealing with for the past few days, and return to the discussion of music that I had brought up in a couple posts.  Something that I have been thinking about over the past few years is a particular rhetorical trope that is common in pop music journalism, the notion of a record or a group being 'ahead of its time.'  It's a label that gets applied to a wide variety of bands, but its a term that is most often applied to the work of bands such as the Stooges and the Velvet Underground.  According to this approach to analyzing music, the value of the music of those bands is reflected in the influence they had on contemporary music.  In the case of the Stooges, it is their influence on punk and metal.  In the case of Velvet Underground, it is their influence on gads of college rock bands.  (The primary narrative of rock journalism is that of the hidden father, it would seem.  We get nothing of the playfulness of Shklovsky in this process, no analogies to chess, no escape from the hetero-normative model.)

     Don't get me wrong.  I love those bands.  I remember hearing The Stooges for the first time on a alternative rock station some time in the '90's.  They played "I Wanna Be Your Dog."  I had never heard anything like it before.  I particularly remember the sound of bells that were added by John Cale's production, which introduced a droning quality to the piece, a quality also found in the vocals of Iggy Pop.  It was simple, repetitive and hypnotic.  I was obsessed, and it took quite a bit of time to track down that record in that period before the internet, and boutique record reissues.  My relationship to Velvet Underground doesn't have that immediate narrative, but those are records that I still listen to all the time.

      But I'm not sure why The Stooges relationship to a pack of mediocre punk rock bands or Velvet Underground's relationship to bunch of bad college rock band offers a very compelling explanation for why those records are so unique, so compelling.  Isn't that evident in the records themselves?  In addition, I'm skeptical of the value of influence.  After all, the first Dre lp and the first Snoop Dog lp led to a spate of terrible records in hip-hop, but despite their all too obvious misogyny, the two records are interesting and innovative records sonically.  For me, a pair of films make the point even more clearly.  George Lukas' Star Wars and Quentin Tarentino's Reservoir Dogs respectively led to a decline in Hollywood and Independent film, but I like both of those films.  Perhaps, the most productive approach to influence is the antiquarian approach, but this is drifting a bit.

      I've been thinking about this because of some material that I came across recently on the 'internet' recently from the original recordings from what would eventually become the Jungle Brothers third album, J Beez Wit The Remedy.  For those who are unaware of the band, the Jungle Brothers were hip hop group that was associated with the informal Native Tongues coalition that included groups such as De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, and Black Sheep.  The groups could be connected through their common interest in expanding the sound of the genre.  They sampled jazz fusion albums, country music, sixties pop music, as well as a greater palate of R&B and funk.  In addition, their approach to MCing moved away from the aggressive, shouting approach that defined earlier acts such Run DMC, the Beasties, etc. to smoother, more laid back approach.  Lyrically, the groups oscillating between taking on serious political topics and a return to the sort of playfulness that defined early hip-hop, although, in retrospect, some of that political engagement was more conservative than initially thought.  (Something that Boots Riley has noted.)  But, I think that misses out on the primary political engagement of the movement.  Instead of looking to lyrics for politics, it would be better to look at the formal experimentation of the groups as their primary engagement, demanding hip-hop, which was so often not taken seriously by the record companies as product (to paraphrase a Roots sample) be taken seriously as an art form, as something that could move beyond novelty and the single format.  Form was the politics of the groups, operating through a combination of virtuosic play, which might be tied to the constant referent of jazz, juxtaposition, that is a commitment to originality and creativity in production and sampling, an alternative take on masculinity and sexuality, and a continuation of hip-hop's move from the single format to the album format.

     The band put out its first record in 1988, Straight Out of the Jungle, and its second album, Done By the Forces of Nature, in 1990.  Both those records were received fairly well, both critically and commercially, but didn't get the attention that were given to the more ambitious albums put out by De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest.  If you contrast the records, its fairly understandable.  The Jungle Brothers records lack the aesthetic coherence of those albums.  In addition, the records sample creatively, drawing from a variety of sources, but lack the kind of virtuosity found on the Prince Paul produce De La Soul and Tribe.  Compared to Three Feet High and Rising or that really long title Tribe album, the JB's albums feel kind of patchy and tossed together, although definitely worth the listen.  (Here are a couple examples from those records.)

      However, the group made a notable shift for its third record, working with outside MC Torture/Sensational and working with producer Bill Laswell, who was both involved in the avant-funk group, Material, and was contributed to Herbie Hancock's "Rock It."  There was a clear intent on the album to produce a more aesthetically demanding and complex form of hip-hop.  The tracks bring in an even wider range of sample material, ranging from more diverse jazz sources to the Stooges.  Laswell, who had a foot in both hip-hop through "Rock It" and the aesthetic avant-garde through groups like Material and Last Exit, was a perfect choice to produce the material, reflecting the group's aesthetic interests.  At the same time, there was a commitment to remain in the continuity of hip hop.  Reviewer Joe Kenney does a good job of expressing this juxtaposition, contrasting the group's work with other work's in the genre's avant-garde.  "Some of Tricky’s stranger concoctions are similar, and DJ Spooky as well, but neither artist strives to stay as true to the hip hop beat as the Jungle Brothers. Because, no matter how weird these four songs are, the bass still shakes your subwoofer, and the beats crush."  The record simultaneously holds a commitment the flow of hip hop and the strategies of disruptive juxtaposition, noise, and dissonance of the avant-garde, and it really works.  I felt the same kind of excitement when I heard these tracks as I did when I first heard the Stooges, or the Pistols, or Public Enemy. (hint: if you want to here some of the other material from the bootleg, and some of its much better than this, there's this crazy place called the internet, and you can find this with 'The Google'.)

       Unfortunately,Warner Bros. didn't see fit to release the record as it was produced, and put out a considerably modified version of the record in the form of J Beez Wit the Remedy.  The modified record neither fit in with the mainstream hip-hop at the time, nor did it hold on to the aesthetic innovation contained in its original form.  Despite some shining moments on the record, it leaves it soggy and awkward.  It's an understandably forgotten record, moldering in cut-out bins and used record shops.  The original form of the record has only been heard by a few people in its entirety.  There is a bootleg 10" from 1999, and a few other tracks have leaked, but it's difficult to imagine the album getting the proper release that it really deserves.  At the same time, it's difficult imagining that the record would have sold, even if it had gotten a proper release.  It's sound is alien to the main trends within hip hop, it still is. The Jungle Brothers quickly abandoned this approach to hip-hop, and have continued to produced decent work, but nothing of the innovation that can be found in the early work.  In addition, hip hop in its underground and mainstream forms has made no effort to take its approach as an influence. It's an aesthetic cul de sac.

        To return to the topic I introduced this posting with, I feel that popular music criticism is far too obsessed with paternity and continuity, and doing so it loses out on the messy complexity of aesthetic production.  The untimeliness of material such as this, cul de sacs whose untimeliness deny the comfortable dialectical synthesis of the 'before its time' narrative, allow for this process to be recognized.  At the same time, the record has to be heard as a singularity, a particular aesthetic approach.  It's value exists in its own particular form and history.  Granted, there are pitfalls to this approach, tedious forms of  fetishization and snobbery that are always the danger of the arcane, but as left activist and science fiction author Chandler Davis notes, "diehard adherence to a heresy is in general less menacing to free inquiry than matter-of-course adherence to orthodoxy: because the heretic, being constantly challenged, is deprived of the illusion that his rut is the whole road." (Chandler 75)


  1. From a Gertrude Stein essay I just read: "No one is ahead of his time, it is only that the particular variety of creating his time is the one that his contemporaries who also are creating their own time refuse to accept."

    The part of "rock paternity" I hate is the critical urge to instantly circumscribe new music by anchoring it to similar sounding earlier bands whether there is actually a relationship of influence or not. Sure, it helps describe a band to other people, but sometimes people speciously conflate convergence with derivision.

  2. In relation to that, I read an interesting interview with the Cramps in an issue of Wire a couple years ago. The interviewer brought up the long series of compilations inspired by the band. Interior said that he was flattered by the comps, but that often they missed the origins of the songs that the band had put together, noting that certain riff patterns could be found in multiple garage songs, and that allowed for easy mistaken identity.