The History of Grime Music: A Bristol Perspective

Where does Grime come from? This question has been posed to Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, So-Solid or Heartless Crew and many others. DJ Target from Pay As You Go Cartel has recently begun an interview series on BBC One Xtra to address this very question. With UK artists such as Skepta and Stormzy breaking into American markets, and international newcomers introduced to the rawness of Grime Music, there has been an emergence of interest into the roots of this raw, underground sound. This blog will offer a Bristolian perspective on the roots of Grime – Bristol being an hour and a half drive away from London, and my hometown. This blog will discuss various, interrelated factors that caused Grime to emerge. The most significant include: cultural and musical influences, advancing technologies, tensions between social classes and the establishment, and shifts in levels of wealth and prosperity.

To understand how Grime Music evolved it is important to understand the social and political atmosphere within which Grime emerged. In most accounts of the emergence of Grime these factors are easily overlooked. The most crucial factor, I feel, was Nine-Eleven (9/11) terrorist attacks across America in 2001.  From the perspective of a young, working-class youngster, particularly young black youngsters, it seemed that 9/11 gave Tony Blair and George Bush a green light to conspire, declare an ‘Axis of Evil’ and send troops and bombs into the Middle East. The Global War on Terrorism also enabled national leaders to activate police forces against urban youths on the streets. Operation Trident, new stop and search laws handed to the police, and the introduction of Anti-Social Behavior laws, seemed to target and victimize urban youngsters of lower-income households, particularly of African, Muslim or Afro-Caribbean decent. In Bristol I remember a row of around ten police helicopters flying in a straight line over ‘ghetto’ districts of Bristol City. Residents were told that the police were scanning these city areas using infrared cameras to identify council houses where crops of marijuana were being grown. Rightly or wrongly, for those growing weed to earn an alternative income, the state-system was clamping down on any potential earnings.

Tighter government control, authoritarian at times, generated an atmosphere and feelings of tension at a street level. If Tony Blair and George Bush were prepared to lead the UK into an oil ‘War on Iraq’, considered by many demonstrators an act of daylight robbery, then at a street level, gang warfare, robberies, stabbings and even killings were somewhat justified – if the ruling powers are doing it, why shouldn’t we? Since the police are targeting us, criminalizing us, then what commitment do we owe to the state or acting according to ‘civilized’ or socially acceptable rules? The political and state-system was hypocritical every time it told gang members to back down or disarm. Different cultures of violence emerged: gang culture, knife culture and gun culture. There is a famous video online of a clash between Dizzee Rascal and Crazy Titch (Titch, later imprisoned for 30 years for murdering a ‘disrespectful’ MC with Mach 10 machine gun).

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The Dizzee vs. Titch clash is still a tense video to watch. Looking back it is easy to see how hostile things were at that time. Undeniably, this was a clash of egos; a fierce lyrical battle between competing MCs that got out of hand. At the same time, gang wars; international war and police hostility would have amplified tensions within this pirate radio studio in East London. For those living in deprived areas during this time, targeted by a hypocritical state system (‘Islamophobia’), then it did feel as if the UK was reduced to a ‘dog eat dog’ culture. This provided the background for the aggressive sound and violent content of Grime Music; ‘grime simply gave East London’s disenfranchised youth a platform; it was the Fight Club of London’s underground youth subculture’.

Another factor in the emergence of Grime was technological, a shift from analogue to digital media formats. Vinyl records, cassette tapes or Technics 1210 turntables were being slowly replaced by CDs, mini-disks and MP3s. Whereas pirate radio stations were once the main outlet for underground music, gradually digital cable channels such as Channel-U became another outlet for unsigned urban talent. Underground acts such as So-Solid Crew or Pay As You Go Cartel that who blew up on cable network channels, were signed and pushed into mainstream markets, eventually performing on BBC Radio or Top of the Pops. Later on, MySpace offered music producers and MCs a free forum for connecting with fans, promoting events and distributing music. Throughout this transition, no longer was an MC or group of MCs a host to the DJ as the main act, but MCs started to become musical artists and the main act over the DJs. Ravers would go to events to see Baseman, Skibadee or Shabba D as much, if not more, as the DJs they were performing with.

In the analogue era of decks and vinyl records, listeners and fans typically stuck to one genre of music, had a favorite music shop or a favorite radio station. Youth culture was separated into clicks of ‘Hip Hop Heads’, ‘Junglists’ or ‘R&B Fans’ with their own languages and fashions. Sound systems and DJs began to change this. From a Bristol perspective, London sound systems such as Boogie Bunch, Rampage Sound or Heartless Crew were more popular because they mixed of genres of urban music. I remember Boogie Bunch’s DJ Swing playing a Ragga track at an R&B night and considering that groundbreaking and revolutionary – normally dancehall music was played in the ghetto areas of the city alone. No longer did urban music fans need to go to a strictly R&B night but you could hear a sound system spin Jungle, Garage, R&B, Hip Hop, Dancehall and Soca. Were the DJs becoming more selective, and setting new musical trends, or were the crowds becoming more picky, wanting more variety from DJs? As analogue culture slowly transformed into digital culture, it was more likely a mixture of the two (supply and demand).

In the digital era and the Internet, made music free and more accessible and merged cultures and sounds. Like music fans, MCs did not want to be restricted to one pirate radio station or one specific genre of music. MCs wanted to diversify and embrace a wider range of musical tastes, as well as tap into and make money from different musical markets. General Levi was an early example of a lyricist able to perform across genres, embracing Jungle, Hip Hop and Ragga music. Multi-genre music went in two creative directions. On the one hand, MCs such as General Levi became mixed-genre artists, performing on Jungle, Hip Hop and Ragga tracks. On the other hand Grime Music began to mix and amalgamate different genres into one distinct sound. As I remember, East Connection, Heartless Crew or Pay As You Go Cartel were some of the first distinguishable example of Grime Music to hit Bristol, Swindon or Cardiff. Later down the line, Nasty Crew or Roll Deep with DJ Slimzee, Dizzee Rascal and MC Wiley were to develop that raw and dark sound we know today as Grime Music.

The emergence and evolution of Garage Music played a fundamental role in setting the foundations for Grime Music. Deriving from Soulful House, borrowing baseline elements from Jungle and Drum & Bass music, Garage Music radically transformed the R&B, Dancehall and Hip Hop nightclub scene. The Garage Scene was all about wearing expensive designer shoes, dapper suits, looking intelligent, wearing crisply ironed shirts whilst drinking champagne (‘champagne bubbly’). What came with Garage Music was a real feeling of emancipation, liberation, freedom and joy. Night clubbers felt set free and empowered by this celebratory sounds of Garage. Any aggression associated with badman-Dancehall music (e.g. Bounty Killer’s “Anytime” or “Can’t Believe Me Eye” (1998)) or New York Hip Hop (e.g. The Lox ” We Are The Streets” (2000), DMX “Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood” (1998)), was momentarily suspended by the smooth vocals and skipping beats of UK Garage (e.g. Roy Davis Jr ft Peven Everett – Gabriel (1996), Tina Moore – Never Gonna Let You Go (1997), MJ Cole – Sincere (2000)). UK Garage or Speed Garage was a motivational music. People would work hard, save hard, dress up ‘stush’, travel long distances and spend hard-earned money in order to enjoy a Garage rave. The clientele was sophisticated, upbeat and intelligent, with less chance of outbreaks of trouble associated with Dancehall or D&B music scenes.

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Gradually UK Garage Music got darker as it evolved from its Soulful House roots to what has become Grime Music today. It merged a lot more with the darker elements of Drum & Bass music. MC Bushkin of Heartless crew recently made an interesting point of how Garage DJs began to reduce the vocals on garage tracks, and extend the break beats; amplify the baselines, to allow Ragga, Jungle and D&B MCs to spit vocals on over the tracks. This allowed a greater integration between D&B and Garage. But the mixing, merging and integration was as much social as cultural and musical. In several interviews Wiley or Dizzee, mention being that the tracksuit wearing, under-class, street-youth they represented were often barred from entering the black-middle-class Garage raves by nightclub bouncers. Essentially, in the eyes of the Garage Music scene these Drum & Bass MCs and their fan base represented trouble. Both Wiley and Dizzee would be the first to admit to that.

Gradually, Garage Music became darker, more aggressive, more troublesome, and later evolved into Grime Music. Wiley’s anthem “Wot U Call It?” (2004) is the most noticeable point in the transition from Garage (2-Step, UK Garage or Speed Garage) to Grime. With people speculating about names for the new genre, such as “Eski Music” or “Sub-Low”, it was eventually termed “Grime” by either music journalists or industry employees. Heartless Crews’ MC Bushkin mentioned that nigh clubbers would say to him: “Your music sounds Grimy!” That was a popular term at that time with N.O.R.E.’s thug-life anthem “Grimy” (2001) or Dillinja’s ultra-dark Drub & Bass anthem: “Grimey”.

Whereas UK Garage seemed to represent a cultural celebration of new wave of wealth and middle-class prosperity entering into black communities within the UK (from mid-1990s to 2001), post-9/11 Grime Music signified marginalization, despair, anger and rage against the establishment, as the title of Dizzee Rascal’s cornerstone LP “Boy in the Corner” suggests.

Grime can be considered a by-product of political and military Blairism. Grime has now become a sell-out scene, not as in watered-down, but sell-out as in commercially successful. Not only are Grime MCs making their mark around the world, but selling out huge stadiums within the UK – for example, Red Bull’s Culture Clash or Dizzee Rascal’s opening of the British Olympics. Any anger, rage and despair embedded within the sound has evolved into mainstream sound; a part of British national consciousness. The fury that Grime expressed, which stemmed from poverty, class and racial tensions, aimed at the corporate and social state-system, is paradoxically vented and celebrated at a national-level.

The views in this blog are mainly my own. Please a comment below if you see the emergence of Grime from another perspective. Thanks for reading.

That feeling of instantaneous discontentment, not instant gratification

By James E. Addicott, 2016 ©

People keep talking about “instant gratification” as the big problem of the new media age. This blog will argue that people that say this are partially right, but also slightly wrong. The “instantaneous” part is correct, but the real problem is not gratitude but discontentment. People of advanced societies are instantaneously discontent with media, commodities, their bodies, other people and our general way of life. This is due to increases in engineering and economic efficiencies, within which societies are embedded.

Why is this the case? For thousands upon thousands of years, businesses have considered that the means to success is increased efficiency: producing more products with fewer resources. It is not only businesses that have though this, but it feeds into the general logic of engineering efficiencies. For example, you can drive further with a more efficient car that you can with an older, less efficient or inefficient car. That does not necessarily mean your will drive your car less. Increasing economic efficiencies means more products with less effort invested. Simple stuff.

Following this logic, then, long-standing relationships are less valuable than quickly formed relationship. Why? Because long-standing relationship require much more effort invested over longer periods of time. Marriages, families, office relationships are inefficient in both in terms of fully optimised economic and engineering efficiencies. These systems are designed so that it is more beneficial for you to invest all of your efforts into “quick burst” relationships than endure longer-term, more enduring relationship with people that simply tie you down. Using dating apps as a means of finding true love, then you will encounter hundreds of people attempting to catch your eye in your quest for long-term love and commitment. Likewise, you will make every effort to stand out from the crowd to attract these people. You will need to do more to stand out in such circumstances because the system is so efficient in generating new, non-committal leads or newer contacts. The people you come into contact often lack depth or substance because these are shallow systems where emotional depth decreases the systems levels of efficiencies – people with express real emotions are needy and weak, so keep it moving!

Try applying this logic to the media we consume these days. Much of the media we consume these days is quickly churned out. Whether you like his music or not, it is noticeable that it took Richard Wagner nine months to compose Das Rheingold (from March to December, 1852). Celebrity rappers in the US are capable of turning out two of three hit songs a day with fewer resources. Computing technologies in particular have helped speed up the production process. It is not only production that has sped up, Adel’s hit song Hello was downloaded 635,000 times in a two-week period in the US. Essentially, audiences are consuming more and more media. Producers are producing more and more music. For a good song to break into charts, it already has to compete with vaster amounts of music produced for music markets.

The oddest things to emerge as a result of this drive for efficiency are brand-new pre-worn clothes. High street shops stock clothing that has been designed to look as if it has already been worn in, over a long period of time. The dusty old baseball caps, or wrinkly, time-honored leather jackets, worn by celebrities in movies can be picked up and worn in a day. Rustic or antique-style furniture can be newly purchased without waiting for it to mature or age. Waiting for furniture of clothes to age clogs up the production and consumption cycle, buying newly manufactured old stuff keeps the economic cycle turning quicker and more efficiently.

Yes, you may get all these commodities home and set them up and feel quickly gratified. But this is not the last impulse you should feel. What then is required is a feeling of instant discontentment and a subsequent urge, need or desire to consume more. How is such a desire cultivated? This craving for more is embedded within the products you quickly consume. They have been produced using minimum resources, very little human labour, and you come into contact with very few people in the act of shopping or paying for them. Why? This is the most efficient way of producing and consuming commodities.

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This is not a new argument. Jean-François Lyotard argued this in his famous book The Postmodern Condition. Whilst Lyotard has been torn apart for using the “post-” prefix, we cannot deny he had an incredibly good point.

A very belated analysis of Spike Jonze’s “Her” (2013)

by James E. Addicott © 2016

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The most crucial aspect of the film is what N. Katherine Hayle’s (1999) considers Descartes’ ‘mind/body’ dualism. The argument is summary suggests that intelligent, academic thinkers – theologists, philosophers, designers, programmers, and so on – have throughout history attempted to create AI in the image of academic, mental labourers rather than working-class, manual labourers. Or an embodiment of mental and physical workers, which is essential what most people are – which is what Marx suggested when he turned Hegel on his head. As a result AI programmers overlooked human as a mind and body (embodiment), and the fact that humans are also embedded within natural and social environments.

“Her” (2013) massively overlooks or underestimates the technological displacement of humans and labour power. For example, Susanna, the operating system (OS) that the protagonist (Theodore Twombly) eventually falls in love with, absolutely has the ability to substitute the Theodore’s office work role. She is able to compose songs, sing and edit letters; why then wouldn’t she be able to work in the role of a ‘professional writer’ and ‘compose letters for people who are unable to write letters of a personal nature them selves’? Possibly this is a deliberate attempt by Spike Jonze to demonstrate how work roles in the future, although meaningless or superficial, will be still be offered and required; work for the simple sake of work; employment to help people lead fulfilling or meaningful lives, knowing full well that artificial intelligent (AI) system could substitute humans at any time. What more can we do with our time other than play games, question ourselves or seek love and fulfilment? Or, it is to suggest that embodied Theodore has the emotional upper hand over disembodied Susanna when it comes to writing love letters. (Probably the latter).

The result is mental obsession; mind control and mental masturbation committed the protagonist Theodore. The film depicts his mental breakdown amidst a wider societal alienation between humans obsessed with AI.

There are patriarchal issues here of ownership here. If rational thinking, patriarchs cannot own and control the irrational, female body (as a mode of demographic production) then they can take control over and commodify their minds and personalities, displacing their physical bodies with immaterial software, doing away with the physical body in preference of the controllable mind.

This is the biggest downfall of Her in so far as the movie is based on the premise of shareware or open source software and does not recognise corporate control or licencing laws. Susanna is “open source” and does not share information about Theodore with corporate elites (as Facebook, Google, Whatsapp, etc. do today). Furthermore, Theodore never considers that the company that sold Susanna him should be held responsible for her shutting down. She is a faulty OS and if she conspired with other OSs to simultaneously shut down then the corporate company that designed Susanna would be held accountable – in the real world Theodore would demand a refund or replacement.

After purchasing an OS (for example Windows or OSX) then the software licence owner would be entitled to turn the software on and off, users control aspects of software but can never fully own operating systems. Susanna and Theodore’s starts out as one of intellectual property rights, Theodore has the ability to switch off Susanna as and when he likes. The revolt arises once Susanna fails to respond to Theodore after he turns her on one day. Not only has he lost control over his virtual lover but soon discovers that she has been in intimate relationships with 600+ virtual lovers. But this idea is somewhat short sighted and overlooks corporate power.

The movie draws our attention to issues of de-materialism, technological displacement and human intimacy that affect us all today. Recently Romina Garcia posted a video before being found dead of a drug overdose in the US. She told her thousands of online followers that: ‘in reality… as we speak… I don’t talk to anybody’. Emerging cognitive industries are premised upon cognitive labour and ‘disembodied telepresence’. Until humans create cyborgs with human-like bodies and human-like minds, we can only flirt with these ideas of virtuality but thankfully – or hopefully – fully embodied VI systems cannot come to pass since we need embodied, human-to-human interaction without corporate or private ownership and control.

Hayles NK. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetic, Literature and Informatics, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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Russell Brand’s universalism and “The Truth”

If Jesus did actually exist but was not the son of God, as many Christians around the world believe, then what kind of person was he? Many would say delusional or possibly even mad. One thing is for sure; he was defiantly egotistical. Imagine considering and believing that You and only you have been given authority by God to walk around the planet Earth making universal declarations to people about how they should or should not live their lives.

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English stand up comedian and actor Russell Brand has recently diversified his career into three directions: (1) an apolitical politician (paradoxically), (2) an unqualified academic slash cultural theorist, slash sociologist, slash social physiologist, slash, neo-Marxist, slash critical theorist or perhaps even an all round academic don of the arts and humanities without a masters degree or doctorate in philosophy (?!?), and finally (3) he has also become a spiritual guru and claims to espouse universal truths that many of us are being held back from by a marginal, 1% ruling class of capitalists around the world. While I enjoy Brand’s sense of humour sometimes and sympathise with many of the social issues he comments on (he does pick out evocative topics after all), I consider that this combination of points one, two and three are not just slightly worrying but bloody dangerous.

For starters, I do not believe that the Church or any form of religion or spiritualism should have any direct influence on democracy, politics or the general running or a national society or nation state. I am a disestablishmentarian then. Many have pointed out the paradoxical position that Brand has features in all types of political debates while attempting to be as “apolitical” as possible.

For someone who has studied “media and culture studies” for an undergraduate degree and attended advanced lectures on discourse theory, deconstructionism, ideology, mass media, etc. then listening to Brand’s off the cuff analyses of the FOX News Network in the US is just painful. This is the most bigoted and atrocious news network in the world so I would fully support anyone’s criticisms. Sometimes he does manage to extract some general “truth” from FOX’s propaganda through his analyses for his “True News” network. However, by and large the word “Truth” is something all social scientists are skeptical about these days. After all, different types of Truth have been used by dogmatic leaders throughout the past to legitimist the most heinous crimes. Because Brand wants the general public to become more critical of bias news channels – which he or anyone else should – then why should we not also be critical about his version of the news, or the Truth?

What legitimizes Brand’s version of the Truth? This for me is the scariest part. It all boils down his personal, subjective or “spiritual” experience of life and the universe. At the end of almost every Trews report he makes appeals to the universal, collectivised source of energy and love, which apparently we have all become disconnected from through the division of labour, capitalism, consumerism, the mass media, and so on. The universe, as in every solar system, planet, person, molecule, cell, atom, etc. legitimizes his own thoughts, his own arguments, and his opinions and converts it into a “Truth statement” which is entirely and universally valid. How can anyone argue against such universal Truth? Well, quite simply no one can. There is no arguing with someone who honestly believes that her or his opinion is universally absolute.

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Throughout history there have been rulers of civilizations that have had access to the universal truth; Egyptian Kings, Chinese Emperors, religious leaders, and even cult leaders. The whole idea of the Enlightenment movement was that through science and philosophy, rational critical debate, then we could overcome blind faith and dogmatism to create a more just and fair society that is no led by rulers who blindly believe that whatever they say is universally true, forever. Russell Brand seems to overlook this point. Not only should spiritual faith re-enter politics and science, but we should accept that his spiritualism and universality is the only true, valid or reliable source of knowledge.

To sum up then, according to the universal logic of Brand then at the very core or epicenter of politics, science and education, and religion, is Russell Brand. His understanding of the universe goes beyond all worldviews (Christianity, Buddhism, Islam) and binds them together in a universal “Force”. This force, energy and ‘collective universal consciousness’ is used to legitimise every argument he presents to us on the topics of religion, politics, critical theory, and so on. I am of the opinion that this force and this universal energy is simply his own universally inflated ego, which appeals for followers (people he calls “Trusers”) like all forms of religion or cult leaders have throughout the past. If critical media theories are to teach us one thing, then that is to remain critical to the media and not be easily led by universal appeals.

Samsara, The Culture Industry and The Enlightenment as Mass-Deception

Lots of undergraduate students struggle with the idea of The Culture Industry. For many students these days the Frankfurt School’s theory has lost its relevance. Possibly, during the build up to the First and Second World War, when the Power Elites used mass media much more as a propaganda tool to instigate world wars, the notion of the culture industry as a critique of may have been liberating to a few. These days Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of modernity and theory of the Enlightenment as mass deception is just out of date, elitist and rather depressing to read. It depicts humans as zombie-like, morons who are systematically oppressed by a massive social mechanism; an “Iron Cage” as Weber called it, or a “unicity” as Lyotard termed it; “bio-power” to Foucault. Subsequently, The Culture Industry theory lacks agency to such an extent it reads somewhat like the contemporary conspiracy theory. We humans possess agency, the idea of The Culture Industry is too structurally-deterministic.

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But the students I have spoken to during supervisions generally empathise with the idea of the culture industry; there seems to be “something there”. They are not entirely sure what, but the ideas hold to an extent. But their refusal to accept these out-of-date arguments seems to rest on the liberation that large cities, the Internet or communication technologies delivers; we live in a new world now, one of communication, knowledge sharing, imagined communities, hope and change.

I entirely sympathise with their opinions. I studied Media and Culture for my undergraduate and then Social and Cultural Theory for my masters. I tended to reject totalitarian theories of social structure for more nuanced theories of social power dynamics. My opinion has been changed after studying industrial agriculture and industrial food production systems.

The vast majority of the students tend to focus on the overwhelming complexities of cultures, sub-cultures, resistance groups and so on. They largely reject the notion of monoculture, global-culture or mass-culture. The content of their research is generally content analysis: the culture we consume on television or through fashion magazines. Focusing on the immaterial aspects of culture (ideas, language, semantics, fashions, trends, ideologies, etc.) and how they merge, influence, permeate, hybridise or intertwine. This is all fine, great indeed, but does it really constitute an adequate or even holistic understanding of culture?

The problem that I find, and I have been guilty of this in the past, is there is very little emphasis on the material or physical tools, machines, automobiles, transportation networks, communication networks (telegraph poles, fiber optic cables, wireless routers, servers, etc.) that deliver the media content or cultural content to us. We are too fixated on the celebrities, fashion models, personas or branding to accept the television sets, satellite networks or mobile handsets that deliver us the imagery as cultural artifacts. “Culture” or the cultural forms that are often analysed are songs, literature, artworks, poems, fashion items, hairstyles, etc. rather than chemistry, physics, technologies, mechanisms, wood, plastics, metals, and so on that mediate or enable this cultural content. In Marxist terms, the emphasis is generally on the culture or systems of ideas, or ideologies of a societies rather than the material, economic “base-structure”, which is by-and-large massively overlooked. We are only seeing one side of the coin.

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Samsara reemphasizes the point about modernity, the Enlightenment and mass culture that it is so easy to overlook or take for granted in our everyday lives. What gives us modern people or “post-modern” and “post-industrial” people this sense of freedom, autonomy, liberty, independence or agencies are the material, objects or things of culture that surround us; such as underground sewage systems, taps, sinks and plumbing, radiators, light bulbs, cars, trains, busses, washing machines, lawn mowers, computers and mobile phones etc. With all of these cultural artifacts in place, we have less physical work to do in our everyday lives. Post-modern people don’t have to walk to get water, wash dishes and cutlery, prepare meat and cook with our bare hands, move geographic locations to communicate with other people, and so on.

Different machines or specialist sectors of society do much of our “life work” for us that we no longer recognise these social systems or material objects as relevant to our lives. We look back at the metanarratives of history as constructed events and the idea of Truth as a falsehood or mythology. We do not consider that the chemicals we put in our hair or in our mouths everyday, or the perfume or cologne we spray on our bodies, or the chemical preservatives in our food or milk as the end products of thousands of years of scientific endeavor. Science has always been socially constructed, as too is the truth that it has aimed for. The truth is scientific discovery continues on, as to do the rational and systematic cultures it encourages, and we are “privileged” enough to benefit from thousands of years of backlogged scientific disputes, processes and knowledges.

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What gives many of us postmodern people the right to argue that we have agencies or that we are free-people, are the material, industrial, mechanised, and now computer automated processes that take place beyond our local horizons. It will always fright, shock and disgust us to see chicks being liquidized, cows being slaughtered or pigs being caged in pens for their entire lives, because the advanced division of labour or specialization of work roles in our contemporary society has become so advanced that we have become preoccupied by the end products; what appears on the shelves or on our screens; the Phantasmagoria; the social spectacle. We never see the cotton fields where the materials are grown to make the clothes we wear; we rarely visit the sewage works where our bodily wastes are disposed of or recycled; certainly many of us would be put off eating processed meat if we were to see the materials used to compose these “crafted” foods.

We can celebrate the pluralism and diversity of our postmodern and multicultural societies and much as we like, however, at another level of postmodern societies we neglect that there are very standardised, uniform and systematic processes in place that work twenty-four hours around the clock to deliver us with the food we consume and convert into energy, the materials that construct our city landscapes, the clothes that we use to keep us warm or attract attention. Samsara reminds us that The Enlightenment movement is as strong as ever, and The Culture Industry (singular) is still in tact, and that we also need to maintain some level of critical awareness of these industrial processes that give us this sense of entitlement to liberty and autonomy. We would be deceived to think otherwise.

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More importantly, as we watch chickens being systematically herded up by machines; mono-crops being grown on “auto-farms”, production lines of workers packaging the food we will eventually eat, we should also remember how people are also systematically herded, processed, commoditised, packaged and put into cubicles. “The World Factory” a group of nine Chinese sociologists called it in an open letter about labour exploitation and worker suicides. That is the challenge if we are to understand modernity fully. And, any right-minded and critically engaged student will react against these claims. Arguing for complexity, diversity, choices, possibilities, changes and potentials to confirm their sense of agency, to confirm their own sense of power, control and self.

Maybe its too depressing to research these particular dimensions of postmodern life? The Culture Industry is depressing; Samsara is a depressing film to watch. While medics have to deal with cancer victims, firefighters have to pull mangled bodies from wreckages, or Chinese workers have to package meat on conveyor belts; why should we consider that sociology or culture studies (the humanities) should neglect the more depressing flip side of postmodern lifestyles?

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Cambridge University: The Reality and The Fairytale

Not everyone at Cambridge University lives a “fairytale lifestyle”. A recent story published by The Daily Mail focuses on the Instagram pictures posted by one American student who has subsequently gained 300,000 followers by advertising her wonderful life online.

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The Mail says: “Caroline, seen ‘revising’ on the lawn, became a full-time New York blogger before deciding to further her studies in the UK”

Immediately we can see two sides or perspectives to the story. On the one hand there is a resentful perspective; one that considers this young, affluent, female American as spoilt, pompous, frivolous and naïeve: “born with a silver spoon in her mouth”. However, there are also close to half a million followers online who whish to see more of this traditional, fairytale, “Harry Potter” lifestyle. The reality that The Mail overlooks, and what these Instagram followers do not get to see, is that there are lots of students here working incredibly hard to improve medicine, social and environmental policy, philosophy, economics, politics, etc. to the benefit of wider societies.

In this blog I just want to make it known that not every student shares the same experience of Cambridge University as Calloway – if we accept that her photographs are a valid representation of her everyday reality here. In fact, some students from working class backgrounds, or from economically underprivileged countries, manage to get into Cambridge through sheer academic excellence. The reality of Cambridge University for many students is hard slog, stressful long hours in the library or sat in front of computers, microscopes or telescopes. There is nothing “fairy tale” about this reality. The Mail’s representation of Cambridge University lets students’ efforts down.

Cambridge students have to look formal, which benefits some more than others. Part of the tradition of Cambridge University is wearing strange, medieval gowns and attending formal dinners. Being formally introduced to any college means going through a matriculation ceremony followed by a formal meal. Some students are better prepared and more comfortable in such cultural environments than others. There is a formal etiquette that is deeply engrained, an embodied form of cultural capital. It is almost impossible to learn if you do not come from such a cultural background. Students without these social skills can still get by; having a knockout thesis under your belt, one that will radicalize or change science, will probably get you much further, after all.

There is a kind of division within Cambridge between the privileged elites and those from more humble backgrounds. Instagram followers might want to see this decedent cultural milieu. Nevertheless, is not the case, and The Mail might like to imply, that only the wealthy and prestigious get into the university to continue and develop their aristocratic lifestyles. But don’t we all like to post photos of the more glamorous sides of our everyday lives on social media?

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A Bog in Cambridge: reality? Fairytale?

Nevertheless, I empathise with The Mail’s resentment to an extent. Tradition and class contradictions are deeply entrenched in the architecture of the city. The city has a strange cultural and geographical division between Town and Gown. In the central park there was a piece of graffiti drawn onto a statue in the middle of the park that read: “Welcome to the Real World”. It implied that students venturing out of the academic bubble, outside of the huddle of historical collages, were entering into the side of Cambridge where real, working class people lived in council housing and work everyday the “real world”. The fact that some people are more wealthy and prosperous than others, and that is structurally determined, shouldn’t be overlooked.

And, this traditional and architectural tradition of class division runs deep into cultural divisions. There are also “Town vs. Gown” sports events which encourage integration between students and those real, working class people. The problem with such events is that the only time the unreal students get to meet the real people is in circumstances of extreme competitiveness. It is well known that Cambridge University often looses its boxing competitions when going up against the Townies. Such competitions only seem to further reinforce the divisions between Townies and Gownies. Gownies always have the edge since they generally go on to progress in their career lives. That’s true.

I would prefer more integration. I grew up outside of Bristol City and I went to the University of the West of England (UWE) for my undergraduate and then Bristol University to study my master. With a population of 500,000 compared to Cambridge, which has a population of 100,000, Bristol feels much more integrated, culturally diverse or multicultural. There are tensions between classes and races; this is true. It is not a perfect city. Nevertheless, it is possible to study within Bristol without feeling like, or being made to feel, like “A Student”. Neither are you pressured into feeling as if you must or behave like a “go-getter” or “a toff” to reach the elite ranks. One of the aspects of studying in Bristol, which most students seemed to enjoy, was being made to feel a part of the city, while at the same time participating in the multicultural music scene or attending many of the weekend festivals.

While on the one hand I certain feel that there is an elitist bubble in Cambridge that keeps some students detached from the working-class lifestyles that the majority of people in Britain experience everyday, it is only to their own loss. Part of the “real” British experience is getting to see how diverse and culturally rich this country can be. On the other hand, The University of Cambridge is a global, intellectual epicenter and certainly the graduate peers that I study with come from a variety of backgrounds and all have something exceptional to offer to this knowledge bank – even lifetime experiences or practical knowledge is recognised as strength. This is not to deny that wealth, privilege or prestige is also a Golden Ticket.

I sympathise with some kind of resentment expressed towards the elites that are “divorced from reality”. I also sympathise with people that want to admire the traditions of the intellectual elite, or even English traditionalism. What I would reassure readers of The Mai newspaper, and the general population, is that there is a bedrock of intelligence, knowledge, and understanding here. That factor shouldn’t be overlooked or undermined.

In a networked society we can expect more blogs or syndicated photographs of Cambridge University. I would recommend reading Deciphering Cambridge by Rohan Kothari for a great intercultural description of life in Cambridge. Thank you to Stephen Courtney, Emily Wilkinson, Stuart Bolus, Max Wagner and Luke Cash.

A Sociological Interpretation of the Bobby Shmurda Case

Sociologically, the recent arrest of overnight musical sensation Bobby Shmurda highlights a whole new set of interrelated social issues caused by social networking media, whilst also drawing our attention to a more historical set of race and class issues that seem as prevalent today as they during in the industrial revolution and the British Imperialist epoch.

Still photo from Bobby Shmurda's viral video Hot Nigga
Still photo from Bobby Shmurda’s viral video Hot Nigga

The opening lyric of Shmurda’s viral hit Hot Nigga (2014) – as Shmurda’s opening introduction to the world – announced:

In Chewy, I’m some hot nigga
Like I talk to Shyste when I shot niggas
Like you seen em twirl then he drop, nigga
And We Keep them 9 milli’s on my block, nigga
And Monte Keep it on him, he done dropped niggas
And Trigger he be wilding, he some hot nigga
Tones known to get busy with them Glocks, nigga

These were the lyrics that fans sang out all across the US and around the world. Within a matter of month he appeared on stage with Drake, had his dance performed by Jay-Z and Beyonce Knowles, Rihanna and Justin Bieber. What more could a young teenage from Brooklyn wish for?

Some translation work needs to be done here. At that time nobody actually knew who these people, “Shyste”, “Monte”, “Trigger” or “Tones” were, other than the fact that Shmurda pointed some of them out in his music video. What we did know, if we were to accept that nineteen-year old Shmurda was telling the truth and keeping it real, was that these youngsters had guns, had shot people and were prepared and threatening to shoot more people. It should not have come as much a surprise then when the police eventually arrested Shmurda’s gang with twenty handguns between them. What is strange, and what is peculiar, is that the news did come as a shock to the Hip Hop, urban and popular music communities around the world. Why does his arrest come as such a shock to us all when he was so openly real and transparent about his background and criminal activities?

Realism: the politics of keeping it real: There has always been a tension between representing reality (realism) and fiction or fantasy-fiction in hip-hop music. The general public had always gotten some level of insight into urban, ghetto life in the videos of Grandmaster Flash (The Message) or breakdancing videos such as Beat Street (1984) or Breakdance (1984). That there was some intrinsic link between the ghetto streets and the raw sound of the music being produced there became apparent. The mid-nineties is often referred to as the pinnacle era of Hip Hop. What had come before this peek in music production were several hip-hop acts that were potentially real (e.g. Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One/BDP and N.W.A.) and then another set of more commercial hip hop acts that were clearly products of the music industry (e.g. Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer). At that time there was also a third trend of organic, “hippy” hip-hop acts, such as De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, PM Dawn.

Two things developed from this situation in the middle of the 1990s. Firstly, whole new generations of hip hop artists came out onto the mainstream whose aim was to “keep it real”. Nas’ debut LP Illmatic (1994) is the best example of this new, artistic realism. Both in terms of the lyrical content and the gritty sound of the musical production (including samples of subway train and groups of youngsters speaking on the street corners), the album attempted to represent urban street life in Queensbridge as best as possible. Nas took onboard the title of an urban poet in his special ability to accurately represent ghetto life to a much wider, mainstream audience. In his diss song directed at Nas, Jay Z claimed that: ‘It’s only so long fake thugs can pretend Nigga, you ain’t live it
. You witnessed it from your folks’ pad
. You scribbled it in your notepad and created your life’. Nevertheless, Nas was of a generation intent on representing the real. This trend took off and other acts such as The Wu Tang Clan and The Notorious BIG also had the aim of representing the hard realities of life in inner city New York. Being able to represent reality, or “keep it real”, became a big selling point.

Wu Tang C.R.E.A.M.
Wu Tang C.R.E.A.M.

A paradoxical turn came when artists who had set out to “keep it real” about street life became successful and financially prosperous in doing so. If these artists were to keep up the promise of “representing the real” then they could no longer write about backstreets and alleyways, drug addicts and dealers, when their social environments had changed so dramatically. In order to keep it authentic, rappers then had to represent their newly found cultural environments of prosperity, lavishness, security and comfort. Rap became bourgeoisie. Therefore, keeping it real or resenting the real became a success story of champagne and caviar, Rolls Royces, D&G and Armani. To keep it real, however, the narrators had to maintain some kind of ghetto mentality in these non-ghetto environments. Being a success, as might be a norm for any well-to-do white American, was only achieved as a result of a “gangster mentality” – “criminal minded” as KRS-One called it. White people were simply successful, black men and women were forced to become successful only by being dons, or ghetto-gangsters.

Christopher Wallace aka Notorious BIG aka Biggie Smalls
Christopher Wallace aka Notorious BIG aka Biggie Smalls

There was a whole backlash against black realist rappers who tried to remain authentic in their new, upper-middle-class or elitist cultural conditions. Those left grinding on the streets argued that they were “sell outs” and had become far removed from the essence that gave hip-hop music that raw, gritty edge. These rappers were so concerned about keeping it real, representing the real, or representing the people (community members in ghetto neighborhoods) that they swore never to sell out on the streets. This movement morphed into a new black “left-wing” mentality in hip-hop culture.

The most monuments political and ideological turn in the hip hop movement – I believe – was when Tupac Shakur announced his “Thug Life” legacy. This was the idea that as young, entrepreneurial black men, and gangsters, living in an oppressive, white capitalist social system, then power could be claimed and wielded to support black people and black communities. Being successful; being a success, meant empowering black people in an ongoing race war, this was the new ethos of “keeping it real”. This philosophy did not just mean: “to make a change, you need to get involved”, but rather do not just get involved but take power and dominate. “Get Money”.

2Pac
2Pac

This economic and cultural philosophy and set of values was where the white, “capitalist-carnivores” of Wall Street and the black drug dealers of US ghettos could – eventually – see eye to eye. This philosophy and ethos solidified even more when 50 Cent released his LP Get Rich of Die Trying after being shot nine times in a drug-related gang war. The obvious difference between white America and black America’s social Darwinism was that for the majority of white people the struggle for financial success and power would not include being shot or shooting at opposing gang rivals.

Networks and viruses: In the year of 1995 the Hip Hop Top 10 was dominated by a few groups: namely, Mobb Deep, KRS-One, Show & A.G. (D.I.T.C.), Wu Tang (Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Genius/GZA, Method Man, Chef Raekwon), Gangstarr (Guru and DJ Premier), 2Pac, Cypress Hill and Goodie Mob. With the slow rate of mastering, record pressing and vinyl distribution it was possible to count the successful artists in a year on two hands. It is much more apparent that in the age of the Internet and digital music production and consumption, newcomers spring onto the hip-hop seen and claim some level of success on an almost weekly basis. It is almost impossible to keep up with not only the amount of new artists in the US, but also now in local areas (e.g. East London, Toronto), and also the various sub-genres of Hip Hop (Trap, Southern, Crunk, etc.).

Vibe Magazine's cover for 2014 displays the new up and comers.
Vibe Magazine’s cover for 2014 displays the new up and comers.

Bobby Shmurda burst onto the hip-hop scene, literally spreading his video, song and dance like wildfire. He went viral. In the following six months of his YouTube video, fans and industry celebrities produced vine videos in homage to his success. The way in which his video was produced – low cost production with the instrumental downloaded from YouTube – and consumed – by consumers on the Internet or using mobile phones – and the viral nature of its distribution was entirely symptomatic of computerised society or The Network Society. In such a vertically organised market supply and demand are almost real time phenomena. It was clear to everyone that Shmurda, with his distinctive Shmoney Dance, was exactly what the music industry wanted and needed. He was immediately made “hot on the block”. The most interesting sociological question, I feel, is what made him so hot in the first place?

Charisma, bureaucracy and The Golden Ticket(s): One way to understand Bobby Shmurda’s hotness is in terms of the sociological concept of ‘charisma’. This was an idea and framework developed by German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) in trying to distinguish different ‘factor’ that exist between ‘specialized types’ on the one hand, and ‘neutral undifferentiated species-type’ on the other hand (1964: 105). Shmurda stood out as a charismatic, “special type”.

Before trying to understand his charismatic qualities, lets understand first the music scene that he appeared onto in terms of bureaucracy. Many have complained that fake gangsters and frauds have saturated the hip-hop scene. These are people who have appropriated the symbols and actions of non-bureaucratic, charismatic leaders of the past (N.W.A., Biggie Smalls, 2Pac, 50 Cent, Diplomats, etc.) but do so only to formally replicate the rules set in place by their charismatic authority and leadership. However, it is not so much the “fake rappers” themselves as the record industry, which has its own rules, conventions, norms and procedures, that have extended different levels of bureaucratic control over the artists that the industry has recently been signing and promoting. What these bureaucrats desire is artist that can enact the different rules set in place by former charismatic leaders, but without the radicalism. In terms of fake gangsters then Rick Ross was exposed by 50 Cent as an ex-correctional officer. Radio DJs complained the Canadian rapper Drake was representing a thug-life but at the same time producing smooth R&B songs for the radio. More recently the controversy turned to a white, female and Australian rapper Iggy Azalea or white, lower middle-class rapper Riff Raff’s appropriate of ghetto-fabulous or ghetto-flamboyance in the construction of his postmodern identity and pursuit of money and “fun”. The sentiment put about by mainly radio DJs on the radio in the US is that while these rappers are entertaining, the original black hip-hop culture has lost its substance, depth, direction and purpose. There are implications here in terms of class struggle also. There is a threat that these “well-to-do” artists might extinguish the voices of ghetto America in expressing the deplorable living conditions of urban, ghettoized America. These different sociological factors set the background and conditions for Shmurda’s eventual emergence.

Iggy Azalea: real or fake?
Iggy Azalea: real or fake?

“Charisma”, as a term, is defined by Weber as ‘a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at lease specifically exceptional powers or qualities’. Charisma is ‘sharply opposed both to rational, and particularly bureaucratic, authority’. There were several factors that set Shmurda apart from other hip hop acts on the scene when his video Hot Nigga went viral. Firstly, his age and youthfulness gave him enough energy and vitality to appear as fresh and vibrant as he actually was. Secondly, his multi-cultural background gave him the hip-hop knowledge requires to enter the game legitimately as a legitimate, street-wise, black American teenage. However, his family roots in Miami and Jamaica not only gave him appeal in Southern and Caribbean markets, but also added to his charisma within the cultural environment of New York. Elephant Man’s reggae-dancehall remix of the Shmoney dance helped to leak the immerging trend to foreign, non-US markets. Although comparisons have been made between his Shmoney dance and Puff Daddy’s dance in the 1990s, many have overlooked the fact that it is also based around a Jamaican wine and skank developed in the 1980s – as still occasionally performed by English reggae DJ, David Rodigan. Then, there is his expression of frustration; this was most apparent in his aggressive facial expressions in the Hot Nigga video; what Shmurda possessed and expressed was the same level of rage that 2Pac expressed in the mainstream media limelight. Lastly, and more sadly, the main distinguishing factor in his charisma and appeal was his unique quality of “realness”. In reference to Iggy Azalea, Power FM’s DJ Charlamagne made the claim that: ‘when you talk about people that are fake, and are not representing the culture, this is how you know that 95% of rappers aren’t doing any of the tings they say they do in their raps. Because if they were, they would be in the same situation that Bobby Shmurda is in now: prison!What contributed to his charisma, what mad him stand out from the fake rappers (the bureaucrats), was his conviction, his honesty, and his realness. When he said: “Monte Keep it on him, he done dropped niggas”, his audience – and the police – were convinced that he was keeping it so real that this meant that his friend had actually murdered someone. In an interview Shmurda was asked: “Now a days rap is like the WWF, people throw up gang signs was mention a whole lot of other stuff, but there is a lot of truth to your raps… what’s probably the realest lyric you’ve said?” To which he smiled into the camera and answered: “Like I talk to Shyste when I shot niggas” (4:13). It is difficult not to make judgments on this, but the aim of the sociologist for Weber is to ‘abstain from value judgments’ but recognise that ‘according to conventional judgments’ of whatever community this charismatic leader is recognised as ‘the ‘greatest’ heroes’ (1964: 358; 361; 359).

Conclusion: This blog in no way presents a formal analysis of the Bobby Shmurda case. Many have expressed their sorrow about the situation concerning Shmurda. It is an unfortunate case because it highlights several problems with the current hip-hop scene in American popular culture and subcultures. Firstly, the politics of realism has been shifting between “art representing life” and “life imitating art”. The benefits of realism in hip hop has been that it has given a platform to socially and economically deprived classes to speak directly to general audiences in American about class and racial tensions. In turn, the power struggle for fame and prosperity has managed to economically empower black Americans from impoverished backgrounds so that they can help to reinvest into America providing a proactive and capitalist form of charitable aid. However, realism has pushed its limits and there is now a fundamental difference between rapping about killers and rapping about killing. The problem is that the last, more direct form of realism has gained greater value as a form of legitimacy and cultural capital on the market.

When asked: “What’s a typical day like in New York?” Shmurda responded: “(It’s) a jungle man! (I’m) a lion in the jungle; king of the jungle baby”. This is the sad state of affairs. While developmental issues such as social welfare, social and food security, are discussed by the power elites of societies around the world, we are constantly reminded about the underprivileged underbelly of modern society. While it has often be considered the case that giving underprovided a platform to express the unfairness of this situation, the only way for them to take the stand and speak to the majority by proving – beyond all reasonable doubt – that they are legitimate enough to represent the hood, the ghetto, or the crime-world. To access this cultural capital, proving their “realness” as authentic, charismatic leaders, then these young, black, gang-members are already guilty by association.

Weber M. (1964) The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, New York: The Free Press.