This is my favorite single moment from Doug Pray’s DJ documentary Scratch: Mixmaster Mike, best known as the Beastie Boys’ DJ, in his home listening to a record of Robert Johnson’s "Ramblin’ on My Mind," and then scratching the everliving shizznit out of it.

Why do I love this clip so much? For one thing, there’s the expression on Mixmaster Mike’s face as he’s listening to the record, just standing there and bobbing his head but otherwise just listening, getting ready to start scratching. Then he grins and he’s off. I love that grin. I look at Mixmaster Mike as he smiles and I think I know that feeling — that drunk wired-up feeling of the performing body about to take flight. That’s what I love about this clip, the feeling of flight, the representation of a musical performance at the moment of lift-off. The fact that what Mixmaster Mike plays is awesome simply confirms that exultant moment in which he slips free of musical gravity.

There’s a common point of view within popular music scholarship that understands such moments as instances of critical trangression — that is, moments in which mass-culture dreck is redeemed through an artist’s creative redefinition of it. The old version of this was a certain interpretation of what it meant when jazz musicians subjected old Tin Pan Alley standards to bebop’s chord substitutions and  lightning tempos. These techniques defamiliarized (i.e., messed up) those old standards, and the assumption was that beboppers were messing with those old standards in order to keep an ironic distance from their sentimentality. Joseph Schloss, in his fine study of hiphop production, Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-hop, quotes Elizabeth Wheeler’s interpretation of De La Soul’s "Say No Go," which follows the same line of thought:

The mixes of De La Soul epitomize the art of ironic sampling. As the basis for "Say No Go," the  story of a crack baby, producer Prince Paul takes the cheesiest pop song imaginable: "I Can’t Go For That" by the "blue-eyed soul" duo Hall and Oates. De La Soul pick out the incidental line "Don’t even think about it, say no go" and transform it into the centerpiece of their version. The phrase "say no go" leaves the context of an insipid love story and lands in the ghetto, where babies addicted to crack cocaine are born every day . . .

"Say No Go" also contains the blank pastiche that links hip-hop most closely with postmodernism. Ultimately, you cannot tell what De La Soul think of Hall and Oates; they use "I Can’t Go For That" not only ironically but neutrally. Out of the corny, Prince Paul salvages the hip: one compelling seven-note riff and one soulful twist of Daryl Hall’s voice.

Schloss asked Prince Paul what he thought about this interpretation:

PP: Wow. That’s pretty deep. But I think the bottom line is just: that was a good song! . . . We didn’t consciously think of "Hall and Oates," "Resurrecting," you know, "Postmodern." We was just like, "Wow. Remember that song? That’s hot!"

JS: See, that’s part of it, too . . . she assumes that you think that song is corny. . . . I thought that there was a lot behind making an assumption like that. Like, "Oh, well somebody like Prince Paul couldn’t actually like that song, because . . ."

PP: Nah, that was a hot song!

This "ironic distance" style of interpretation clearly doesn’t explain Mixmaster Mike’s cut-up of "Ramblin’ on my Mind." Mixmaster Mike isn’t keeping his distance from the song he’s cutting up; neither does his scratching represent some kind of triumph over or diminishment of it. When you perform, you perform something; and your relationship to that something is, ideally, transcendental. But you are not transcending what you perform; you are simply transcending, intransitively. In the best moments of performance you fly into the ether, and what you perform is both what bears you aloft and what you take with you.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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5 Responses to Flight

  1. kevin r hollo says:

    You make some salient points, and this idea of a non-ironic distance (can’t we think of it as a “closing in on,” too?) is something that sits at the very heart of post-avant musics in this country. For a long time, people couldn’t take a joke. Then, people took jokes, a little resistant, but they laughed. Then they took the jokes and ran with them, sometimes tripping and falling but that created new jokes. Then they took the jokes too far, but even that turned out to appeal to more than we thought. Then they became the joke. That’s when critics began to deploy ideas like ironic distance, ideas which fail miserably in light of the more important music being made in the last ten years. What I think is more interesting (b/c you do a nice job defrauding ironic distance between art and artist) is the distnace bewteen art and audience. How does this notion hold up here online? A huge question, but with new dispersion techniques (along with new media applications/approaches) comes a new sense of distance, both for the artist and the audience. What you call “mass-culture dreck” is now closer and farther than ever before. The immediacy of self-authoring compositional tools makes the self ironic, no? No. I’m not sure it’s a question of transcendence so much as rooting oneself in that performance of “some thing,” it’s almost phenomenology at work, but once recognizing the thing itself (my guitar string, this mallet, a horn’s valve) moving past that with an attentive ear to what isn’t being played.

  2. Phil Ford says:

    Well, *I* don’t call it mass-culture dreck — I think the critical anxiety that manifests itself in “ironic distance” narratives also manifests itself in “mass culture” narratives as well. Everyone likes to think of mass culture, or mass society, as something that involves other people. Like, *I’m* not part of the mass audience; that guy with the mullet listening to “Sweet Home Alabama” is. As someone or other said, everyone can agree that only 10% of music is any good — we just can’t agree on which 10%.
    In truth, you can’t get past irony, because irony is such a major part of our sensibility, and in any event it’s just a fundamental way of looking at and representing the world. But there are lots of kinds of irony, and the particular kind suggested in the “ironic distance” style of interpretation is one whose importance has been overplayed. Actually, I have an article on Thelonious Monk that deals with Monk’s irony, but I don’t suggest that he’s dissing his own tunes or anything. (Why would he?) Monk’s irony is (I argue) of a piece with a more general project of modernist defamiliarization. And I think it’s a mistake to think of *that* project as one of mockery. Quite the opposite, in fact.

  3. kevin r hollo says:

    You’re absolutely right! I think we could just call it self-reflexivity and forget about subletting the use of irony for a relationship between art and producer that has little to do with negativity. Irony has gotten a bad rap through overuse, yes.
    Wouldn’t you agree that there would be no “criticism” of the mass culture variety without this distance? Ironic or not, and I would lean towards the not, the rigor of critical writing in most realms (academic, journalistic, public, etc) limits one to the role of outsider looking in. Whenever one struggles to “get to the heart of the matter” by infiltrating some culture or group, it’s always the same hyperromanticized or edgy thing. Irony.
    The kinds of self-reflexivity that you’re pointing to has none of that. The music I most admire today is consistently and conciously giving nods to itself and it’s resonances with other musics in a very intertextual way. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
    Thanks for your thoughts! I just found all these musicology blogs and needless to say, it feels a bit like home 🙂

  4. Phil Ford says:

    Glad you feel at home! That’s what we wanted to do with this blog . . .

  5. Gabriel Solis says:

    For what it’s worth, it seems that very often people think that “irony” means “sarcasm,” or something like that, which, of course, it doesn’t. This, in turn, leads to plenty of problems.
    Regardless of that, I just thought I’d holler at you, Phil, and say that I dig your blog (my brother, a non-musicologist, pointed me to it), and that I hear congrats are in order for the new job.

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