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January 22, 2015

Filed under: music»tools


Whitman is a simple sampler (womp womp) written for modern web browsers. Built in Angular, it uses the WebAudio API to load and play sound files via a basic groovebox interface. You can try a demo on GitHub Pages. I put Whitman together for my dad's elementary school classes, so it's pretty simple by design, but it was a good learning experience.

The WebAudio API is not the worst new interface I've ever seen in a browser, but it's pretty bad. Some of its problems are just weird: for example, audio nodes are one-shot, and have to be created with new each time that you want to play the sound, which seems like a great way to trigger garbage collection and cause stuttering. Loading audio data is also kind of obnoxious, but at least you only have to do it once. I really wanted to be able to save the audio files in local storage so that they'd persist between refreshes, but getting access to the buffer (at least from the console/debugger) was oddly difficult, and eventually I just gave up.

But parts of it are genuinely cool, too. The API is built around wiring together nodes as if they were synthesizer components — an oscillator might get hooked up to a low-pass filter, then sent through a gain node before being mixed into the audio context — which feels pleasantly flexible. I'd like to put together a chiptune tracker with it. Support is decent, too, with the mobile browsers I care about (Safari and Chrome) already having decent availability. IE support is on the way.

The most surprising thing about Whitman is that it ended up being entirely built on web tech. When I started the project, I expected to move it over to a Chrome App at some point (it'll be taught on Chromebooks). There are still some places where that would have been nice (file retention, better support for saving data and synchronization), but for the most part it wasn't necessary at all. Believe it or not, you can pretty much write a basic audio app completely on the web these days, which is amazing.

In the parts where there is friction, it feels like a strong argument in favor of the Extensible Web. Take saving files, for example: without a "File Writer" object, Whitman does it by creating a link with a download attribute, base64-encoding the file into the href, and then programmatically clicking it when the user goes to save. That's a pretty crappy solution, because browsers only expose data URIs to create files. We need something lower-level, that can ask for permission to write locally, outside of a sandbox (especially now that the File System API is dead in the water).

January 15, 2015

Filed under: music»recording


This week, Neil Young finally made the dreams of heavy-walleted audiophiles a reality by releasing the PonoPlayer, a digital audio player that's specifically made for lossless files recorded at 192KHz. Basically, it plays master recordings, as opposed to the downsampled audio that ends up on CDs (or, god forbid, those horrible MP3s that all the kids are listening to these days). It's been a while since I've written about audio or science, so let's talk about why the whole idea behind Pono — or indeed, most audiophile nattering about sample rate — is hogwash.

To understand sample rates, we need to back up and talk about one of the fundemental theories of digital audio: the Nyquist limit, which says that in order to accurately record and reproduce a signal, you need to sample at twice the frequency of that signal. Above the limit, the sampler doesn't record often enough to preserve the variation of the wave, and the input "wraps around" the limit. The technical term for this is "aliasing," because the sampled wave becomes indistinguishable from a lower-frequency waveform. Obviously, this doesn't sound great: at a 10KHz sample rate, an 9KHz audio signal would wrap around and play in the recording as 1KHz — a transition in scale roughly the same as going from one end of the piano to another.

To solve this problem, when digital audio came of age with CDs, engineers did two things. First, they put a filter in front of the sample input that filters out anything above the Nyquist limit, which keeps extremely high-frequency sounds from showing up in the recording as low-frequency noises. Secondly, they selected a sample rate for playback that would be twice the frequency range of normal human hearing, ensuring that the resulting audio would accurately represent anything people could actually hear. That's why CDs use 44.1KHz sampling: it gives you signal accuracy at up to 22.05KHz, which is frankly generous (most human hearing actually drops off sharply at around 14KHz). There's not very much point in playback above 44.1KHz, because you couldn't hear it anyway.

There's a lot of misunderstanding of how this works among people who consider themselves to be audiophiles (or musicians). They look at something like the Nyquist limit and what they see is information that's lost: filtered out before sampling, then filtered again when it gets downsampled from the high-resolution Pro Tools session (which may need the extra sample data for filtering and time-stretching). But truthfully, this is a glass-half-full situation. Sure, the Nyquist limit says we can't accurately record above 1/2 the sample rate — but on the other hand, below that limit accuracy is guaranteed. Everything that people can actually hear is reproduced in CD-quality audio.

This isn't to say that the $400 you'll pay for a PonoPlayer is a total scam. Although the digital-analog converter (DAC) inside it probably isn't that much better than the typical phone headphone jack, there are lots of places where you can improve digital audio playback with that kind of budget. You can add a cleaner amplifier, for example, so that there's less noise in the signal. But for most people, will it actually sound better? Not particularly. I think it's telling that one of their testimonials compares it to a high-end turntable — vinyl records having a notoriously high noise floor and crappy dynamic range, which is the polar opposite of what Pono's trying to do. You'd probably be better off spending the money on a really nice set of headphones, which will make a real difference in audio quality for most people.

I think the really interesting question raised by Pono is not the technical gibberish on their specifications page (audiophile homeopathy at its best), but rather to ask why: why is this the solution? Neil Young is a rich, influential figure, and he's decided that the industry problem he wants to solve is MP3 bitrates and CD sampling, but why?

I find Young's quest for clarity and precision fascinating, in part, because the rock tradition he's known for has always been heavily mediated and filtered, albeit in a way that we could generously call "engineered" (and cynically call "dishonest"). A rock recording is literally unnatural. Microphones are chosen very specifically for the flavor that they bring to a given instrument. Fake reverb is added to particular parts of the track and not to others, in a way that's not at all like live music. Don't even get me started on distortion, or the tonal characteristics of recording on magnetic tape.

The resulting characteristics that we think of as a "rock sound" are profoundly artificial. So I think it's interesting — not wrong, necessarily, but interesting — that someone would spend so much time on recreating the "original form" (their words) of music that doesn't sound anything like its live performance. And I do question whether it matters musically: one of my favorite albums of all time, the Black Keys' Rubber Factory, is a cheaply-produced and badly-mastered recording of performances in an abandoned building. Arguably Rubber Factory might sound better as MP3 than it does as the master, but the power it has musically has nothing to do with its sample rate.

(I'd still rather listen to it than Neil Young, too, but that's a separate issue.)

At the same time, I'm not surprised that a rock musician pitched and sold Pono, because it seems very much of that genre — trying to get closer to analog sound, because it came from an age of tape. These days, I wonder what would be the equivalent "quality" measurement for music that is deeply rooted in digital (and lo-fi digital, at that). What would be the point of Squarepusher at 192KHz? How could you remaster the Bomb Squad, when so much of their sound is in the sampled source material? And who would care, frankly, about high-fidelity chiptunes?

It's kind of fun to speculate if we'll see something like Pono in 20 years aimed at a generation that grew up on digital compression: maybe a hypertext hyperaudio player that can connect songs via the original tunes they both sample, and annotate lyrics for you a la Rap Genius? 3D audio, that shifts based on position? Time-stretching and resampling to match your surroundings? I don't know, personally. And I probably won't buy it then, either. But I like to think that those solutions will be at least more interesting than just increasing some numbers and calling it a revolution.

February 20, 2014

Filed under: music»business

The Grind Date

Lots of musicians have given their work away for free, but De La Soul is different. On February 14th, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Three Feet High and Rising, they uploaded their back catalog and made it available to anyone who signed up for their mailing list. There are at least three really interesting things about De La's Valentine's Day gift, especially given the fact that the albums on offer have never been available digitally before.

Of course, they almost weren't available last week, either. The original links sent out that morning went to a Dropbox account, which (no surprise) was almost immediately shut down for excessive bandwidth use when everyone on the Internet went to download the free tracks. A new solution was soon found, but it just goes to show that even a band that you'd think would absolutely have a nerdy, Internet-savvy friend, didn't. I kind of like that, though. It gives the whole affair a charming, straight-from-their-garage feel to it.

The first interesting thing is the question of why the albums were released for free in the first place. Reports are vague, but the gist is that De La Soul's label, Warner Brothers, hasn't cleared the samples on the albums, so they can't be sold online. Due to the weirdness of music contracts, you can still buy a physical copy of Three Feet High — it's even been re-released with bonus material a couple of times — but you can't buy the MP3. While it's true that people still buy CDs, I'm guessing that number doesn't include most of De La's fanbase.

But that leads us to the second twist in the story, which is that what De La Soul did is probably illegal. Like a lot of musicians, they own the songs, but they don't own the music: the master recordings of those albums are owned by the label instead. The fact that De La Soul could be sued for pirating their own albums explains a lot about both the weird, exploitative world of music contracts, as well as the ambivalence a lot of musicians feel for labels.

Let's say that nobody sues, however, and Warner Bros. decides to tacitly endorse the giveaway. De La Soul still doesn't have access to the masters, so how did they get the songs to distribute? Interesting fact number three: when people examined the metadata for the tracks, they turned out to be from a Russian file-sharing site of dubious legality. Basically, the band really did pirate their own work. I'm a little disappointed they didn't rip their own CDs, but considering that they didn't have anyone around to tell them not to use Dropbox as a CDN, we probably shouldn't be surprised. It was probably easier this way, anyway — which says a lot about the music industry, as well.

If what De La did was legal, does that make the pirated copies also legal? Would it have been legal for me to download the exact same files from Russian servers while the "official" songs were available? And now that the campaign is over and you still can't buy Stakes Is High from Amazon MP3, are the pirate sites back to being illegal? Nothing I can remember from the Napster days answers these questions for me — although to be fair, all I really remember from Napster is a number of novelty punk covers and making fun of Lars Ulrich.

Assuming they're not sued, and so far they've gotten away from it, the download promotion should be good for De La Soul. Or to put it more bluntly, they probably figured it couldn't hurt, and they're likely right: if these songs were never going to end up for sale online, most of their remaining value is promotional (for shows and other albums) anyway. So it's a savvy move, but it's one unlike the other artists (Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead) that have offered their music for free online. Those bands were issuing new material, unencumbered by sample clearance, and in support of an entirely different genre. I suspect a lot of classic hip-hop artists in similar situations may be watching this new promotion with a lot of interest. Chances are, that's just the way De La likes it.

September 25, 2013

Filed under: music»performance»dance

Strut Yo Stuff

Everybody has one style of dance that resonates with them. They may see house, or locking, or waacking, and immediately know that's what they want to do. For me, strutting clicked. I'm not particularly good at it, because I don't practice enough, but I'm tall and have a good memory for shapes and angles. The "feel" of strutting, too, is something I seem to grasp easier than when I was first learning b-boy toprock. In DC, I had a pair of knowledgeable mentors, Rashaad and Future. But in Seattle, there aren't a lot of people for me to crib from, so a few weeks ago I went to San Francisco to learn from the original strutters.

Strutting is not particularly well-known, even in the dance community. You're certainly not going to see it on "So You Think You Can Dance" any time soon. But it was hugely influential in its day — it was one of the precursors to popping, and from there a lot of hip hop movement — and it's made a bit of a comeback in recent years, due in part to the advocacy of a dancer named Lonnie "Pop Tart" Greene.

The descendent of a San Francisco style called boogaloo, strutting combines party dancing and "posing" with its own particular attitude to create something different: it emphasizes strong shapes and angles formed at punctuated stops. Strutters don't pop, they "dime-stop" by halting their motion right on the beat. If you do this fast enough, or with enough force, your muscles tend to contract hard enough that your body shakes a little — that's where the pop originally comes from.

You can perform solo, but strutting's defining feature is that it's a group activity. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a line, strutters competed in neighborhood talent shows and dance competitions for the length of an entire song: long, complex displays of synchronized and syncopated rhythm. Even today, while certain moves like the Fresno and the Fillmore have broken out into solo form, the best way to watch strutting is in its group form.

Here's a couple of videos from the BRS Alliance celebration I attended. In this one, Playboys Inc. runs through a pretty incredible routine. Watch out for the dominos, especially: the way they create a set of interlocking shapes, and then double the tempo, is a signature of strutting.

(Warning: the audience in these clips is extremely enthusiastic.)

Rashaad and Future also showed up with something they've been working on. It's a little rough, but I really like how they combine their newer styles with strutting. It's especially interesting the way they put more three-dimensional movement into their routines to compensate for only being two people.

A lot of what I learned on the trip, technique-wise, is evident in these two videos. It's not a specific movement — it's the feel of strutting, which combines a party swagger with sharp precision. As I mentioned, strutters and boogaloo dancers don't "pop" the way we think about it now. Instead, they just stop moving so precisely with the music that it creates the illusion of popping.

Along with that incredible dime-stop proficiency comes a real intentionality for all their movements. When the really good strutters make a movement, they commit to it completely. Their gaze extends along the arm or leg, and their body leans into the motion. I've always known that this was important, but seeing people whose dancing was so stripped-down, without all the surrounding technique that poppers have built up, was revelatory (and a lot of fun to watch).

I wasn't the only person who traveled for the weekend. People came from New York and DC to take part in the celebration and take classes from Pop Tart. You can tell that's a lot of pressure on him, and on the other dancers who were teaching that day. I've met him before, when he came to Soul Society, so I knew a little bit about what to expect, but I'd love to hear what the other visitors thought.

On first (or second, or third) glance, it's easy to think that Pop Tart is a little crazy. He gets names wrong in funny ways, and he's prone to outbursts about hip hop, which he feels took over and obscured the history of strutting. He's obsessed with his own biography, a relentless self-promoter who has written, directed, and filmed a movie in which assassins from the future are sent back to kill him and keep him from teaching other people the original Oakland styles. But to fixate on these things, which are undeniably a little nutty, is to misjudge the man.

Like almost all American folk dance, strutting and boogaloo comes from poverty. Unlike b-boying, which had a period of exploitation that its pioneers managed (with varying degrees of success) to turn into sustainable business, strutting stayed poor, and so did its innovators. For a long time, Pop Tart was forgotten. He and the other members of his crew, PT-3000, performed on boxes in Fisherman's Wharf as living statues and robot men. This is not a career that puts you in touch with a lot of other successful artists. You don't pick up a lot of social media tips.

If I shake off some of my deeply-ingrained prejudices as a middle class, white, East coast person, Pop Tart's eccentricities look less like craziness and more like ambition. I don't think he knows exactly how to get from where he is now to the kind of fame and influence he'd like to have — but then, who does? In the meantime, he's hustling as hard as he can, and the results are not unimpressive. Sure, his movies are shot on what looks like an old VHS camcorder, but he's working to document his culture the best way he can. He digs up footage of groups that everyone else has forgotten. He records interviews with the dancers that are still around. In fact, at the BRS Alliance dance celebration, he made a point of bringing back the original dancers, having them tell their stories, and presented a bunch of them with awards to recognize their influence, even in just a small way.

If anything, I learned as much from the stories these dancers told as I did from watching them move. It lends context to the movements, like learning that the distinctive cross-stepping motion used during a strutting routine comes from old Meow Mix commercials, or hearing how inventions like waving and popping traveled out of Oakland and into LA. I heard from the first dancer to use Kraftwerk as a backing track, which (given the dominance of electronica in modern popping) is kind of a big deal. Indeed, that context reaches beyond the dance itself, because strutting and boogaloo are very much the product of their times.

One of the oldest dancers I've met from Oakland is William "Mr. Penguin" Randolph, an original member of the Black Resurgents. Randolph is an incredibly kind, good-natured, grandfatherly gentleman. He is impeccably well-dressed, as you would expect from someone who emulated the Temptations and the Supremes.

But it's easy to imagine a time when Randolph would not have been seen that way by mainstream America, and not just in the sense of being a black man from Oakland, CA. Look at the names of the boogaloo groups: Black Resurgents, Black Messengers, Medea Sirkas, Demons of the Mind... these are names that reflect the black power movement in which they were created. The dancers weren't necessarily political, except in the sense that W. Kamau Bell once commented: "If you're black and you have opinions that don't rhyme, you're political." Their costumes and movements took inspiration from TV and movies, but also from their surroundings (there's a lot of pimp- and gang-inspired moves in the strutting repertoire).

Now, of course, these are just old guys from a bad neighborhood, trying to figure out where they fit and ride the (admittedly small) wave of rediscovery. They're still proud of where they come from, and simultaneously frustrated at having to be "rediscovered" in the first place. Lots of the speakers spent part of their time griping about Soul Train, which was kind of hilarious, when you think about it: dancers in most of the country see Soul Train as the program that helped bring African-American dance and music to a wider audience, but the Oakland dancers couldn't afford to travel down to Hollywood and dance in a studio for free, which means that strutting and boogaloo never reached the same prominence as LA styles like locking.

The boogaloos have a strong sense of regret about being passed over, even though there's probably nothing they could have done about it. Pop Tart even made a mini-documentary about the groups that never left San Francisco, called The Day Before Hip Hop. It's really obvious to them that history is written by the victors — except, can you have victors if there wasn't really a war? Nobody fought against strutting, it's just that nobody at the time really fought for it, for a whole variety of reasons only tangentially related to the dance itself.

In fifty years, when Pop Tart and Will Randolph and the other dancers aren't around, how much of the character will survive? How much is being preserved? It's a common concern troll by would-be hip hop academics that we need to set down an authoritative history for the culture, and to some extent they're right. But would a cut-and-dried account really be able to capture how weird and wonderful something like strutting can be? People like to say that the same dance moves recur throughout history, but of course that's not entirely true. The way you put those moves together matters, and it has a unique flavor from style to style.

We might as well ask how much of this history is reliable in the first place. How much can we believe? Was Oakland really the original home of huge swathes of hip hop dance? Or is it just myth-making in progress? At times like this, I like to remember the approach taken by Joe Schloss, NYU professor and late-blooming b-boy, in his groundbreaking work of hip hop dance history, Foundation: B-boys, B-girls, and Hip Hop Culture in New York:

The uprock debate embodies the benefits and liabilities of the b-boy approach to history. Full of mystery and apparent contradictions, it was never meant to be comprehensive. Each person has his or her own perspective, and each perspective is an important part of the overall fabric of urban dance history. If these stories resist being assimilated and smoothed over, perhaps that itself is where the significance lies. I would argue that b-boy history, like b-boying itself, has to be contentious. Any history that pleases everybody would-by that fact alone-lack important elements of b-boying: competition, ego, self-aggrandizement, battling. The goal of b-boy histories, like the goal of b-boying itself, is to represent yourself and your community. Is the Bronx more significant than Brooklyn? Are African Americans more important than Latinos? Is uprocking a gang dance or an anti-gang dance? It depends on where you stand, and it should.

In a way, I think it will almost be a shame for the woolly oral history of strutting to be tamed into a single, conventional narrative — even though such a simplification will probably help preserve the dance for the future. Strutting should always be a little unsettling, I think. True to the name, maybe it should strut its stuff, strike its poses, and then — when the song ends — step back into dangerous obscurity.

And as for me? Where, as Schloss says, do I stand? I have no particular authority on strutting, of course, but that doesn't mean I'm not invested. There's a lyric from Yasiin Bey's "Fear Not of Man" that I love, where he says:

People be asking me all the time,
Yo Mos, what's gettin' ready to happen with hip hop?
(Where do you think hip hop is goin'?)
I tell 'em,
You know what's gonna happen with hip hop:
Whatever's happening with us.
If we smoked out, hip hop is gonna be smoked out.
If we doin' all right, hip hop is gonna be doin' all right.
People talk about hip hop like it's some giant
Living in the hillside
Comin' down to visit the townspeople.
We are hip hop.

Sometimes it's hard for me to tell where I stand in regards to dance. Unlike a lot of people in Urban Artistry, I don't really like going to clubs. I don't battle as much as I probably should. I'm a little introverted. But while I'm not a part of strutting's history, it is part of mine. Its context — from black power to funk music to urban sprawl — is my context, as an American. And so while it's sometimes difficult for me to figure out how to represent strutting and popping respectfully, the journey is near and dear from my heart. I came back from Oakland a little more knowledgeable, a little more uncertain, and a little closer to understanding. What more could I ask?

July 2, 2013

Filed under: music»artists»the_roots

Mo Meta Blues

It seems cruel to suggest that the worst half of Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson's new memoir, Mo Meta Blues, is the half that's actually about him. Cruel, but not untrue--and not undeserved, given that ?uest himself opens the book by complaining about the predictability of most musical memoirs. Maybe that's impossible to escape. But when the rest of the book practically sparkles with mischief, I can't help but wish it was willing to spend more time dancing around expectations.

The book opens with a great deal of self-awareness. We're dropped into an interview between ?uestlove (a nickname that is wreaking havoc with my keyboard muscle memory) and an unnamed interviewer, debating how the memoir should be written. A letter from Ben Greenman, co-writer, then fills in some context: the interviewer is Richard Nichols, co-manager of The Roots, the band for which ?uestlove has been drumming for many years. Nichols proceeds to almost steal the show: a passionate and wry speaker, he takes over the narrative during the interview chapters, contradicts ?uestlove's account of events, and then decides he doesn't particularly care for the interview format. He spends the rest of the book weaving arch comments into the footnotes instead.

This is a book that takes the "meta" part of the title very seriously.

The problem is, when Mo Meta Blues actually slips into memoir, that awareness and playfulness seems to vanish. There are times when it picks back up, like ?uestlove's amazing Prince anecdotes or his year-by-year recounting of the best records he listened to throughout his childhood and why they're important, but these are few and far between. For the most part, the biography part of the story follows a traditional trajectory, with little scandal: The Roots form up in Philly, struggle for years, mingle with a collective of other artists, and eventually reach a kind of working success. The group comes across a lot like ?uest himself: wholesome and largely uncontroversial.

Which, to be fair, is not untrue: The Roots are not another Motley Crue, behind-the-music tabloid tale. But I think it probably undersells them. As Mo Meta itself points out, they're an uncommon outlier in modern hip-hop: a live band with lots of members and a long chain of albums, not to mention an expressly political viewpoint. There are hints of analysis there, but I wanted more.

So what we're left with is half slightly-dull memoir, half guided tour through hip-hop's sonic history. Which half wins? To me, it's a no-brainer: as a fan of his music, I'm happy to indulge ?uestlove for a few hours. But I'd love to see him cast his critical net a little wider next time.

May 8, 2013

Filed under: music»performance»dance

That's Guerrilla With a U

Soul Society is here again, and so am I. If you're in the DC area this weekend, check it out.

February 14, 2013

Filed under: music»artists»thao

We the Common

On Friday, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down played a show at the Sonic Boom near our apartment in Seattle. The shop was completely packed, which was a pleasant surprise. Seeing a Thao Nguyen concert, even in abbreviated record-shop form, is always a treat: live, she performs with a kind of abandon that privileges energy over accuracy, and you really get the full impact of her voice, which can veer from a mutter to a howl in the space of a beat.

The best parts of her new album, We the Common, are the songs that let that voice greedily cover its full range. The titular opening number is a stompy rallying cry that builds from a choppy banjo riff until it soars into a wordless chorus. "The Day Long" showcases the quieter, spookier side of the album, but is no less effective: it has a kind of marching melancholy that's weirdly danceable. In between, there's the jaunty swing of "The Feeling Kind," which wouldn't be out of place on the band's first album.

The production remains top-notch: they seem to have picked up a few tricks from Thao's collaboration with Mirah (especially the Tune-Yards'-produced "Eleven"), but applied it to her particular brand of indie rock. "Every Body" mixes a spiky ukelele with synth bass, and while it may just be that I've been listening to a lot of Stop Making Sense lately, I hear a touch of the Talking Heads in the punchy, over-distorted "City," probably in the call-and-response that closes it out. It's becoming one of my favorite songs on the CD, along with the boozy wall of sound that is "Age of Ice."

Fittingly, the most skippable tracks involve times when Nguyen's voice is either kept to a single mood (the dirge-like "Clouds for Brains") or, more bizarrely, paired with Joanna Newsom on "Kindness Be Conceived." Newsom's folky, child-like voice is an acquired taste I've never found appealing, and it tips an otherwise inoffensive song over into tweeness.

We the Common isn't as dark as Know Better, Learn Faster, but it's still not what I'd call cheerful. It's probably not as political as the title sounds, either, although with her elliptical lyrics that's hard to know for sure. But it remains tightly-crafted songwriting wrapped around a unique, powerful voice. I think it's a must-listen, but don't take my word for it: check out their short performance on KEXP and see what you think.

September 13, 2012

Filed under: music»performance»dance

Style Wars

On Google Plus, for no reason other than it seemed like a good idea at the time, I've started writing posts about dance videos on YouTube--either footage of events I've been to, or cool examples that I've seen other dancers posting elsewhere. It's a fun chance to introduce people to urban dance culture, as well as good mental practice.

In DC, and particularly as a part of Urban Artistry, I got used to seeing people switch between styles regularly--and in some cases to unexpected combinations, like African or waacking. Here, that seems less common: there's a lot of b-boys and a lot of dubstep poppers, and most of them stick to their particular specialty. Which is a shame, because I'm starting to realize, both from watching events live and on YouTube, that a great all-styles battle is pretty much my favorite kind.

What makes all-styles battles so great? I think it's a combination of factors:

  • They can be surprising. I've been to long b-boy battles, and by the thirtieth crew it doesn't matter what they do, the crowd is dead from watching so many windmills, jackhammers, and flares. In all-styles, by comparison, the moves are probably less strenuous but you never know what's coming up next.
  • They're more musical. The tricks of a given style take on more importance in single-style battles, but when two dancers come from completely different traditions, what they have in common is dancing, not power moves or acrobatics. That makes these match-ups a lot more inviting for newcomers, too.
  • They're more challenging. You never know what music someone will be dancing to. At some jams, I've seen the contestants allowed to pick their own genre, but most of the time it's just whatever the DJ feels like playing--and I think they use these as opportunities to dig out some real oddball tunes. If nothing else, watching some poor hapless dubstepper forced to dance to disco music is always amusing.

Dancers often talk about movement as a conversation. But battling across styles, especially when all the participants have more than one skillset, is a great way to literalize that. Take this clip from Northwest Sweet 16 a few months ago, where both crews trade exchanges back and forth, often beginning their turn in one genre as a response and then transitioning to another as a challenge. It's a ridiculously good show from a group of talented Vancouver dancers.

I wish there were more jams like that. Just as outside the cypher, diverse workplaces have higher productivity, all-styles battles are great inspiration for dancers of all types. I'm trying to take that lesson to heart, and keep learning new dances (even ones I don't really like). A couple of weeks ago I took a class in waacking (best Wikipedia article ever). I have no hope of ever being good at it, but learning how its distinctive arm movements work gave me a ton of new ideas for strutting and locking (and it was a great workout). Specialization would have robbed me of that experience.

I'm always amazed by people who say that you should focus solely on a single style. Almost everywhere in my life, learning in one area has enriched and illuminated others, and dance is no exception. For that matter, if I weren't trying to stay open to new influences, I wouldn't have started b-boying in the first place. Whether you're a dancer, a writer, a coder, or whatever, it's almost always a good idea to take a moment once in a while and do something strange and uncomfortable. It might be inspiring, or a surprising mix with what you already know. You might like it.

July 31, 2012

Filed under: music»recording

History, Sampled

In a move guaranteed to bring every troll of a certain age crashing into the comments section, an NPR All Songs Considered intern wrote this month about listening to Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back for the first time, comparing it unfavorably to (of all people) Drake. I can sympathize, because I too am still new to a lot of classic hip-hop, and I too do not always think it lives up to its reputation. On the other hand, even I don't go around kicking the whole Internet in the shins these days.

Surprisingly, in the kind of serendipity that sometimes rescues online slapfights like this, ?uestlove from the Roots dropped into the comments alongside the vitriol and lent some balanced advice on putting those recordings into context. He also wrote, in a follow-up on Twitter:

Man, That NPR/PE piece isn't bothering me as much as the position of both sides: youngins (I don't listen to music older than me) oldies (I cry for this generation) so you got one side that is dismissive to learning, we got another side dismissive on how to teach. Which leads to that "hip hop on trial" clip in which I spoke about the absence of sampling in hip hop is killing interest in music in general. At its worst sampling is a gateway drug to music you forgot about (listen to "talking all that jazz" by stet).

As a rock musician, I didn't get sampling for a long time, because I didn't really understand the relationship between listeners and producers that samples create. It didn't become clear to me until I started hanging out with the dancers in Urban Artistry, many of whom are also DJs or ferociously dedicated music fans, and realized that their knowledge of music was incredibly deep in part because they were listening to sampled music. What seemed like a lazy way to construct songs disguises an incredibly active listening experience.

That's why I love ?uestlove's commentary, because now that I listen to a lot more hip-hop I catch myself doing exactly what he describes: listening with one ear tuned to the present, and one to the past. Looking up the origins for a beat is a great way to discover classic tunes that I missed, or that I was too young to hear when they were first released. Recognizing a sample sometimes reveals a sly in-joke for a song, or a link somewhere else by virtue of shared DNA. It's not that other genres of music don't do the same thing--jazz musicians do this with riffs, and when I started learning bass, there was a whole canon I was expected to learn, from Pastorious to Prestia--but I guess I like the irony of it: here's the drummer for the greatest hip-hop "live band" justifiably lamenting the lack of sampling because it removes context and discoverability from the music.

A common lament among historians like Jeff Chang or Joseph Schloss is that hip-hop culture is distinctly apocryphal. It's an oral tradition: even in the dance community, moves like the CC or the Skeeter Rabbit are named after their creators as a way of maintaining continuity. Far from disrespecting the original artists, hip-hop music uses samples to put them in a privileged position. Knowing where the sample originates--the song, the record, the artist--marks a fan as someone who's doing their homework, in the tradition of DJs "digging in the crates" for new records to play. The future challenge for both historians and participants in hip-hop is walk a fine line: preserving the culture without disrupting either its innovative spirit or its built-in mechanisms of respect.

September 28, 2011

Filed under: music»performance»dance

Still Crafty

This Saturday is Crafty Bastards 2011, DC's annual craft fair and b-boy battle. Two years ago, it was one of the first battles I attended, and last year it was my first public b-boy battle, so I have a soft spot for the event. I'm not entering this year, but I thought it would be a good time to write a little bit about what I've been doing lately, dance-wise.

In February, I joined Urban Artistry as a performer and part of the operations team (helping on the web sites, mostly). Over the past year, that role has grown somewhat, and I'm now the Director for Interactive Media for the company. It's been a great experience to help UA grow, even in small ways, and I'm pretty proud of that work.

In the meantime, I've still been working on b-boying, popping, and strutting. The latter, a popping style from San Francisco, is something that I really enjoy: it has a lot of exaggerated gestures, which work well with my height, and it can be performed in stunning group routines. One of the inventors of strutting, Pop Tart, even came to Soul Society to judge and teach a workshop:

Dancing has also re-kindled my interest in playing bass. I've been doing a few open mics lately after class on Thursdays, practicing with other company members, and trying my hand at new genres. Whether the two skills are directly reinforcing each other, I'm not sure. But I do find it interesting that I "hear" music differently from people with a pure dance background: I tend to pick out individual instruments more than they do, for one thing, possibly just because I know which sounds go with what. It's not better or worse, but it is different, and I'd like to learn to listen from either "perspective" at will.

It's kind of ironic that all this is coming together now, as Belle and I get ready to move to Seattle before the end of the year. The dance community here may not have completely turned around my opinion of the city, but it's done more than anything else to open my eyes to a more vital side of DC. Leaving it behind will be hard.

Future - Present - Past