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August 31, 2011

Filed under: music»tools»bass

Bass Check

Last week I achieved a goal that I've had for seven years, one that's even documented back in the earliest days of this blog: I bought a Jetglo Rickenbacker 4003 bass. Bass Northwest may have one of the world's most hideous store websites, but they delivered where it counts. And while I was there, putting my name on the list to get this bass, they told me an interesting story.

Rickenbacker only makes fifty basses a year, they said, and those basses are made in what (from a store's perspective, not Rickenbacker's) is essentially a random order. The company doesn't tell stores what color or type they're making on any given day, or when they can expect an item to arrive. Instead, a store will just get a note from the Rick factory in response to their standing order, letting them know that an instrument is on the way. You might think that this unpredictability would make it difficult for stores to sell these basses, but in fact the extreme rarity of Rickenbackers (not to mention the voracity of their fanbase) means that they find homes almost immediately.

Why does the Rickenbacker company make so few instruments each year? I don't know the exact reason, but I suspect it has a lot to do with it being a family-owned business--one that's extremely possessive of their designs (Ric is notoriously litigious towards "generic" versions of its guitars) and therefore still builds everything here, where they can retain close control. The management at Ric is obviously really proud of their domestic manufacturing. Each bass comes with a little "made in USA" sticker on the pickguard, which (on a black and white instrument) makes it look a bit like it's wearing a flag pin on its lapel. I almost expect it to run for office.

For whatever reason they've chosen to do it, Rickenbacker's stubborn refusal to move production overseas stands out. Practically nothing else that I own is built here, musical or otherwise. It's possible that a lot of things can't be produced domestically anymore: the New York Times had an article the other day on bringing manufacturing back to the US, and the difficulty of reviving an industry after so much of the skills and infrastructure supporting it have been outsourced. It turns out that manufacturing, which would seem like a largely solved problem, really isn't--and it's not easy to catch up if we fall behind.

Stop me if I get too Friedman-esque, but for me, seeing that little flag sticker on my new bass highlights a tremendous tension in today's globalized marketplace. I think Rickenbackers are probably designed better than instruments built overseas (they'd have to be, since there's no economy of scale to subsidized waste) and I like that their manufacturing is subject to our regulation. But the irony is that I might not have learned to play bass if everything was made like (and cost as much as) a Rickenbacker. My first bass, which I still own and play, was a $300 factory-made Yamaha BB404 from Taiwan.

So I'm trying not to be incredibly snobby about where my new bass is made, because I owe my ability to play it to cheap construction. Simultaneously, though, I think there's a lot of value in Rickenbacker's model, and I wish we did more to encourage domestic production--not out of jingoism, but as a way to keep our skills sharp and our products humane. Maybe that's a lot of baggage to lay on a single bass, but I've been waiting seven years for it, after all: I think it might be forgiveable to obsess a little.

May 16, 2011

Filed under: music»performance»dance

Origins: One Heartbeat

We've been busy since Soul Society: Urban Artistry will be performing this Saturday with Coyaba Dance Theater and Capitol Tap for a show titled Origins: One Heartbeat. It's $15 for general admission, with student and senior prices available, at the Montgomery College Performing Arts Center in Silver Spring. Check out the site for more details, a video with some background information, and a link to buy tickets. Hope to see you there!

April 11, 2011

Filed under: music»performance»dance

Soul Society: This Weekend

My free time this week is going to be absorbed by Soul Society activities, including tomorrow night's parkour lesson, Thursday's MC showcase, and the DJ battles on Friday. So there won't be any posts here--except, of course, for this unsubtle pitch.

Anyone in the DC metro area looking for something to do this weekend should definitely come by the Artisphere on Saturday for the battles, and Sunday for workshops taught by our guests from around the world. There's also a free film festival and art exhibit on both days. Come by, check out the art, watch me embarrass myself in the cyphers, and see some truly amazing dancers from the area, across the country, and internationally. Details and more at

April 7, 2011

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Touch vs. Turn

If Korg's DS-10 synth is a portable Reason, all dangling virtual cables and signal flow diagrams, Nanoloop (newly released on Android this week) is like a pocket-sized Ableton Live: simple geometric shapes laid out conceptually. It's an approach designed for screen interaction and readability instead of mimicking its' non-virtual counterparts. I like both Nanoloop and the DS-10. But I suspect I like real synthesizers more, even though they're bulky and inconvenient, solely because the real thing isn't trapped behind a sheet of glass.

Which is not to say that Nanoloop is not very cool. I never owned a copy of the Gameboy version, because I couldn't quite justify spending $40 on a cartridge for a 20-year-old game system, but its simplified layout (originally created for greyscale LCDs and few buttons) works well on a touchscreen. The built-in synths don't quite have the classic feel of a Nintendo sound generator chip, but there are more of them, including a built-in sampler (the Android version even allows importing custom samples from the SD card). Nanoloop's synth engine is certainly less powerful than the DS-10 (modulation routing is one of those things where the patchbay metaphor really does make sense), but it does fit the channel controls on a single screen (Korg's software has separate screens for subtractive synthesis and patching), and that really puts the emphasis on fast, efficient composition. So while I'm still terrible at tracking, this is an easy way to burn some time while waiting for the bus.

On the other hand, neither program is anywhere near as much fun as mucking around with a big analog-style synthesizer--I'll get lost in one of those for hours, and I don't even like playing keyboard. What's the difference? Big, chunky knobs, switches and buttons that I can physically handle to get a "grip" on the sounds. There's just something viscerally better about tactile synth controls. I feel the same way, incidentally, about my bass effects--no matter how many cool things I could do with virtual pedalboards, I always went back to stompboxes eventually. Nor am I alone: even in the age of touchscreens and DAW plugins, people keep inventing ways to make music software physical through devices like the arc or various control surfaces. It's like there's something people just really like about turning knobs and flipping switches.

As a generally pro-digital kind of person, I was kind of bothered to realize this about myself. I have no sentimentality about e-books, for example, and I'd rather suck lemons than record on analog tape. The more I think about it, though, the more I see the role of the tool as the distinguishing factor. Stompboxes and synthesizers are performance-oriented--they're all about process and inspiration. It's important that they be responsive in ways that are instantly intuitive, even if that requires extra bulk or lowered flexibility. Recording and editing audio, on the other hand, are (mostly) results-oriented activities: I'm not trying to discover new sounds, just rearrange existing elements, so I'm happy to deal with them at as high a level as possible.

Clearly, then, there's a thin zone between abstraction and control that makes a performance instrument satisfying. Given too much abstraction, you take away the player's expressiveness. With too little, they're overwhelmed. Virtual instruments and touchscreen interfaces aren't inherently unsatisfying, but they almost always require musicians to maintain a higher level of mindfulness to use them, the responsiveness will be less dynamic, and the feel just won't have the same richness to it. Where each player draws the line is probably up to them. Since I don't really consider myself a synth player, software synths like Nanoloop and the DS-10 will be good enough for now. On bass, though, I'll stick with my stompboxes.

March 15, 2011

Filed under: music»performance»dance

Juste Debout

Congratulations to Urban Artistry's Tasha and Toyin, the first women and first entrants from the USA to win the international Juste Debout house dance competition. It's a pretty amazing battle. Just look at that stadium!

March 2, 2011

Filed under: music»performance»dance

B-Boy Year One: Learning to Fall

Part of a series looking back at my first year of breakdancing. I didn't post this with the others, for some reason.

"The ground is your friend," said my first breaking teacher, Emily. "It's always there for you. You've got to get comfortable with the ground."

I am not naturally friends with the ground. At best, it is a dirty, hard surface. At worst, it is covered in things to trip me, and filled with burrowing insects. I don't instinctively trust the ground, and my basic ground-related strategy--cultivated over years of low physical exertion--has been to keep it at a neat distance by walking upright.

But you can't dance without paying attention to the space around and beneath you, especially in hip-hop dance (which has a playful relationship with illusions of weight and time) and especially in breaking. Its central feature, after all, is that dancers drop to the floor and move rapidly on all fours--to the point that b-boys and b-girls have reappropriated the word "footwork" for it. This kind of movement means that I've had to get used to being much closer to the ground than usual, and also that I have to get there from a standing position. In both cases, this means learning to fall down, on purpose.

Falling is something that kids do naturally. They don't think twice about it, because they're deeply convinced of their own invincibility. Adults have mostly lost the knack. Learning to fall (and by extension, learning to breakdance) means reacquiring the confidence that if you hit the ground the wrong way, the worst injury you'll incur is to your dignity. Take that step, and you're on the path to awareness of the ground, and the gravity that pulls you down to it. Both are constant companions that we might otherwise ignore, much as a fish might ignore bouyancy.

I am not quite there yet, mind you. I still freak out a little when I try to flip over into a backspin. But I'm starting to get the idea--I'm starting to make friends with the ground. Much like the cypher, I think that a b-boy or b-girl's close relationship with the floor surface shapes an important part of their mentality. A dancer needs to account for enough space to perform on the ground, as well as keeping enough control to move in tight confines. They need to be able to edit their vocabulary to fit the particular limitations of a given surface, be it concrete, lineoleum, wood panel, or marble. A b-boy or b-girl is always battling, not just with another dancer, but also with the dance environment. And from that struggle comes creativity and flavor.

February 2, 2011

Filed under: music»performance»dance

Soul Society

Urban Artistry's International Soul Society Festival just launched its website, with HTML and JavaScript by yours truly. The page had mockups ready, but the designer had to take another job before he could actually build it, and I volunteered to pick up where he left off. We'll be updating it regularly as the date gets closer, and there are links to various social media channels if you'd like to subscribe.

If you're in the area when April rolls around, this is something to put on your calendars. Soul Society is one of the biggest and best events for urban dance and music that DC has to offer. It's family-friendly, with workshops and events for all levels, and the talent on display--from the judges, the guests, and the competitors--is going to be off the charts this year, with popping, breaking, and all-styles battles. Check it out!

September 28, 2010

Filed under: music»performance»dance

Battle Royale

(inspired by, via, in the style of Run DMC)

This Saturday, October 2nd, I'll be taking part in the Crafty Bastards breakdance battles in Adams Morgan, DC. People have often asked me, since I started breaking, when they can come see a performance. Unfortunately, b-boys and b-girls don't really do recitals, and most battles are held in odd locations with a $15+ cover charge. But early on I attended Crafty Bastards--a free, outdoor, family-friendly battle held in conjunction with a craft fair--and decided that I'd try to make it my first formal battle, where friends and family could come watch.

So on Saturday, I'll be battling alongside b-girl KT B as Steak and Cake Crew. The competition starts around 2pm, at the Marie Reed Learning Center in Adams Morgan. In addition to myself, there will be a range of amazing local b-boys and b-girls performing incredible acts of rhythm, power, and coordination. DJ Stylus Chris will be playing funk, soul, and old-school hip-hop for the event. Also, there's a craft fair, if you're into that kind of thing.

I am nervous as all get out, people. I'm spending most of this week in last-ditch practice mode. But I have modest goals: get out there, have some fun, and not embarrass myself. If you're in the area, come on out and say hello!

July 21, 2010

Filed under: music»performance»dance

B-Boy Year One: Top Rock

Part of a series looking back on my first year of breakdancing.

I competed in forensics--college-level public speaking competitions--for two years. It was a tremendous influence on my life. I learned a great deal about writing, about working with other people, and about confidence. But one of the best lessons I learned from it came from failure at a national tournament.

At GMU, where I competed, the team was fiercely competitive--to an unhealthy degree, in my opinion. Reach the national finals, and you got your name on the team room wall, which was basically the highest honor they offered. I was eliminated at the semi-finals my second year year at nationals, but I went to watch the final rounds, and I was struck by something: yes, most of the finalists were better than I was, but the gap was not tremendous. To reach their level, I probably would have to spend another two years polishing my skills and adapting to some of the community's odd, inbred speaking tics--two years spent on diminishing returns, at the expense of pretty much everything else in my life.

What, I asked myself, was I really hoping to accomplish? Was I here for a handful of plastic stick-on letters in a GMU office building, or did I want to learn about rhetoric? There were other reasons that I left the team--a bad relationship with a teammate, wanting to branch out into other parts of the college experience, the desire to sleep in past 5 AM on the weekends--but that moment was key. That was when I realized that you can choose what to get out of an experience, and that those lessons could be very different from the intended deliverables.

I mention this, not just because I'm a former speech geek who sees most experiences through the lens of three-point structure, but because that realization has been a big part of my perspective on breaking. At 27, I was older than most beginners, and there are portions of the dance's daredevil side that I'll probably never master. As such, I'll almost certainly never win a battle. But that doesn't mean someone like me can't learn a lot from b-boying, even while acknowledging that the dance's competitive spirit is a driving force behind its development. So when making a list of what I've learned, I want to avoid simply listing off a set of moves and freezes, or complaining about all the things I'm still very bad at, and discuss the less obvious, personal lessons instead.

  • I've learned that we're not frozen in carbonite after college. For American white, middle-class culture, it's often said that college is a time to "find yourself." After your student years, you're thrown into the workplace, which comes with certain expectations about socializing and identity: get to know your coworkers, because they're going to be your best friends, etc. From that point on, it's supposed to be an evolution, not a revolution.

    But you know what? It turns out that this doesn't have to be the case. There's no reason that your self-image has to be set in stone, or that you can't go out and meet new people and do new things. Perhaps this is obvious, but to me it was refreshing. As someone who has always hated the idea of "finding one's self" anyway, I've loved how b-boying has grabbed my life by the corners and shaken it a little.

  • Dare to be stupid. I had never really danced before last year. It's not something my family did, and I always considered myself someone who makes music for other people to dance to. So I kind of looked like an idiot when I first started. In fact, I probably kind of look like an idiot still. At first, I felt self-conscious, but now I've learned to roll with it.

    Life's too short to take myself seriously. Besides, I'm a gamer as well as a musician. I regularly position myself in front of a television and A) twitch a lot, B) play pretend instruments with other people, C) stomp on a mat in time with music, or D) all of the above. Looking stupid can be a lot of fun. Worrying about embarrassment, not so much.

  • Learning anything is like learning everything. Dancing brought into focus something that I have suspected for a while: being a good student isn't just a matter of studying long hours. It's a question of how you learn, and those lessons can be generalized across all kinds of tasks. Breaking down a new skill into its component parts, practicing them (effectively), and then integrating them back into the whole is the same process whether you're learning an instrument, a new language, or a dance form.

    This is no small amount of what good teachers pass on to their students, whether in higher education or at a studio. It's what autodidacts often lack: the ability to prioritize and discriminate how they learn, and to acquire knowledge systematically (the same is true of conspiracy theorists, not coincidentally). The self-taught learners I know tend to suffer from this: they spend a lot of time running down dark alleys and backtracking, because they never learned how to learn. Every time I go back to the classroom, I learn a little bit about the metacognitive process, and breaking has been no different.

But maybe most of all, b-boying has reminded me that there are no shortcuts to self-improvement. When I find myself faced with a new task, I'm always tempted to look for a trick, some quick fix that'll let me master it. I think that mentality served me well early in life, and it became a bad habit. There are good and bad methods for learning, but the real improvement in my dancing (and elsewhere) has come when I stopped spending my time looking for shortcuts, and took the hard way instead. I have a lot of work to go. I'd better get back to practicing.

July 14, 2010

Filed under: music»performance»dance

B-Boy Year One: Cypher Up

Part of a series looking back on my first year of breakdancing.

Learning the techniques of breaking, whether in a classroom or an informal group, is only half of b-boying. The other half is the cypher--the group circle where breakers dance, at a jam or a battle. That's where the competitive aspect of the dance and large portions of the surrounding culture are realized. As local MC Gorilla Will is fond of saying, you're not really a b-boy or b-girl if you don't cypher. This is also the reason that my friends and coworkers rarely see me dance: b-boys and b-girls don't exactly have recitals. But for a newcomer, finding events to attend in the first place has not always been as easy as you'd think.

Spend enough time on the Internet, and you naturally begin to expect that any offline hobby community--bassists, knitters, fitness instructors, etc.--will have a corresponding centralized online presence that you can tap into, especially given the prevalence of free tools like maps, calendars, and forums. This doesn't seem to be the case for b-boying. With the caveat that I may be missing something entirely, as far as I can tell the breaking community communicates sort of under-the-radar. Events are publicized through word-of-mouth, through social networks like Facebook, and via flyers at other jams. If you're not already networked with other dancers, in other words, it may be hard to break in. As much as anything else, I think, that's the value of local classes: they give newbies a start on building the necessary connections. On one level, this obscurity is intensely frustrating, but it's also got an allure to it. It's a friendly, open underground, but an underground nonetheless.

But let's say you've made it, finally, to a typical DC-area battle event. If it's indoors, you're probably looking at a large, single room of some kind--a gymnasium, a church, or a community center. The DJ is down at one end, with an MC nearby calling out instructions and organizing the battles, which take place in a large circle close to the DJ stand. The battles are usually organized in a loose tournament structure, with prelim rounds followed by a single-elimination tree. An event can take a long time--eight hours, for some events I've attended, especially if there are lots of entrants in large team battles. In between competition rounds, there are usually periods of freestyle dancing, with circles forming up spontaneously around the room.

(It would be easy to read meaning into the many symbolic circles available at a jam: the cyphers on the dance floor, the vinyl records spun against each other to create loops of musical time, and the fluid rotation of footwork and power moves. Sometimes, as part of the dance's rich mythology, these relationships are made explicit. For example, check out this group routine by Ichigeki at the 2005 Battle of the Year competition, which combines all those circles into a single, show-stopping performance.)

Battles are typically judged by an odd number of experienced dancers--three is a common number, sometimes five. Each side gets a certain number of rounds per dancer, although they can usually "commando" in with a group routine without counting against their total. In elimination rounds, the judges throw a hand toward their pick for the winner on a count of three at the end of the battle: whoever gets the most votes moves on.

Breaking is incredibly competitive, so it's funny to watch the interactions between crews during a battle. They'll toss out rude gestures, taunt the opposing dancers, and generally project an air of (over)confidence. Dancers are judged, in part, on how much spirit they bring to the battle, and how expressive their presentation is. The "character" of a b-boy or b-girl isn't always in-your-face--some of my favorites, like Toyz, may spend pretty much the entire battle just goofing around--but aggression is definitely the dominant mode. And yet at the end of a round, with some exceptions, everyone shakes hands or exchanges embraces. The burns are just for show.

In much the same way, I'm always amused by the contrast between the visual appearance of a jam and its sonic character. As a gathering of (mostly) minority youth wearing baggy clothes and making rude gestures, it's a cultural conservative's worst nightmare. And yet the patron saint of breaking is none other than American icon James Brown, and its musical touchstones are old-school funk, soul, and rock tracks like Babe Ruth's The Mexican or the Jimmy Castor Bunch's It's Just Begun--the kinds of records that DJ Kool Herc spun in the '70s. I don't think it's a coincidence that many b-boys and b-girls, especially the older dancers, regard themselves as partial guardians of "real" hip-hop, dating back from the days when it first emerged from Brooklyn street parties. The idea that breaking is a key element of an empowering urban movement still rings true in the cypher.

In his scholarly study of the dance, Foundations: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York, Joseph Schloss writes:

A cypher can be "built" virtually anywhere at any time: all that is required is a group of dancers. It does not require a stage, an audience, a roof, a dance floor, or even a designated block of time. The cypher's very informality and transience are part of its power; it appears when and where it is needed, then melts away. Rhetorically, it is often referred to as "the" cypher, rather than "a" cypher, which suggests that all cyphers are, in some abstract way, connected. B-boys and b-girls view the cypher with an almost mystical reverence, befitting its status as the most authentic, challenging, and raw environment for b-boying.

There's a lot to unpack in Schloss's chapter on the relationship of breaking to its physical location, but I like this passage in particular. Even with my limited experience, it captures the way that the cypher is not just a place where b-boying takes place, but an integral part of the dance's identity: you can't have real breaking without jams to break at, and you can't be a b-boy or b-girl without cyphering. The cypher is a microcosm of both the dance itself and the social movement it represents. Like b-boying, it creates a dialog of both competition and collaboration. And like hip-hop, it's a way for practitioners to impose a new interpretation onto their surroundings--to remix the environment, effectively, into a space of their own.

Future - Present - Past