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Tome On The Range

5th Chamber—Creative Reorganisation: Will Ashon Enters The Wu
The Quietus , November 17th, 2019 09:48

In an exclusive extract from his new book, Chamber Music: About the Wu-Tang (in 36 Pieces), Will Ashon discusses re-referentiality, Wu-slang, and "one of the finest musical evocations ever recorded of the sensation of being baked"

It seems likely that any culture born out of slavery will be re-referential, in that its mode of communication will always be, at root, to say one thing and mean another. There is no room for an honest exchange of views with a master – even (or particularly?) a master who thinks that there is. Your own culture, religion and language are all forbidden, the master’s ignorance of them weaponising them, turning them into a conspiracy. Everything which makes you human has to be nested within the alien structures of the aggressor culture. As this disjunction of saying and meaning develops, it becomes a shadow system in which all forms of communication – language, music, movement – are re-wired while still maintaining the appearance of the dominant culture which is in fact being subverted. This is, of course, work requiring huge ingenuity and imagination. However, during this transference the original meanings of the enslaved culture will inevitably be warped and changed, too, so that something new is created in the gap between what is forced upon its constituents and what they remember. Both cultures are transformed – in some sense, transcended – in this act of creative necessity.

Amiri Baraka, in his classic work on African American music and culture, Blues People, suggests Christianity as the point of cultural ingress for captured Africans brought to America. These slaves weren’t allowed to practise their own religion – central to their understanding of every aspect of the lives they had been ripped from – so adopted the only version of spirituality on offer. Having done so, though, they discovered that – in the early days, anyway – it was the sole area of their existence where they were left to themselves, ‘the only times when the Negro felt he could express himself as freely and emotionally as possible’. Under cover of piousness, the deities of diverse African religions were smuggled into the Christian pantheon of saints, as outlined by Robert Farris Thompson, who shows how Yoruba-Americans, for instance, ‘outwardly abiding by the religious proprieties of the Catholics who surrounded them, covertly practiced a system of thought that was a creative reorganization of their own traditional religion’. The particular way the African-becoming-American was allowed to express him or herself in church was through music, the spirituals being hymns rebuilt and repurposed to express the secret longings of a people ripped out of their world and deposited in a brutal hell. Later, secular forms of this music began to be marketed and sold by entrepreneurs (America’s core religious practice?), and these re-wired expressions of loss spread, multiplied, expanded, forming new shapes as they went, eating up any raw material they came across. Until, eventually, we arrived at a point where almost all of us – possibly even high court judges – know that ‘wicked’ can carry a very different meaning from the same word in the King James Bible.

Hip hop has often been treated as a collapse or retreat from the ‘high’ African American culture of modern jazz, a kind of bastard offspring lacking the musicality, sophistication, complexity, even the spirituality or morality of its besuited forebear. It’s understandable on one level, the lack of traditional instruments and hence the absence of a recognisable corpus of technique leading to the conclusion that no technique is required at all. On top of this is the issue of the language sometimes used, of swearing and misogyny and violence, a sense that this is not a music which presents the best of Black American life. It’s inarguable that it’s a long way from A Love Supreme to Supreme Clientele. But if you think of the music of the African slave diaspora as a music of re-reference then it’s possible to suggest that hip hop is, in fact, its highest, most realised form, a late renaissance rather than a descent into decadence: the most re-referential music ever made. This begins with the DJ ‘cutting breaks’ across two turntables and finds its own ultimate expression with the sampler (Grandmaster Flash described himself, after all, as a ‘human sampler’). Sampling recontextualises sound. It is re-reference made concrete, brought front and centre where it’s unmissable. To collage sound and, in doing so, to alter the meaning of every constituent element, is a form of ecstasy, stepping outside of oneself in order to more fully inhabit oneself. It represents a system in which this re-wiring, this recontextualisation, is the central form of self-expression. In which, in effect, Self is built from Other – and hence collapses the distinction between Self and Other – over and over again. For ever.

No one exemplifies the particular dynamics of this renaissance better than Method Man, and the only technologies he employs are his mouth and his mind. ‘Method Man’ the song is one of only two solo tracks on Enter the Wu-Tang and Meth uses it for a master class in re-reference. For a start, the nursery-rhyme spelling out of ‘Method’ on the chorus itself – sounding as if it naturally follows the cadences of the piano sample beneath it – is in fact a quotation from the Hall & Oates hit, ‘Method of Modern Love’. The hook which follows on the bridge (‘I got fat bags of skunk…’ etc) seems so natural and immediately recognisable that when you hear it you imagine it as a chant on a hundred other hip hop records. In fact, it’s a version of ‘Come Together’ by the Beatles. ‘Even if I didn’t know the words to the song,’ Method Man explains, ‘I had my own version of the words’ – his memory acting as a filter, warping and changing the original so that the result is familiar and unfamiliar all at once. And where does the lure of nostalgia lie if not in this tension of something familiar and forever lost?

This ‘sample’, though, is even more refracted than we might at first imagine, because what Meth is referencing isn’t the Beatles at all, but Michael Jackson’s cover of that Beatles song, itself a kind of re-referencing. This is a trick the artist pulls twice on ‘Method Man’: the first line of his first verse is apparently a straight steal of the chorus from the Rolling Stones’ ‘Get Off Of My Cloud’, but when asked about it, Method Man once again points to a Black artist’s cover or re-appropriation, in this case Bootsy Collins’ use of the line in the Rubber Band’s ‘Disciples of Funk’ from 1990. In view of Keith Richards’ recent comments when asked about cultural and musical appropriation (‘I’m black as the ace of fucking spades, man. Ask any of the brothers’), the double repurposing of this line seems even more apposite (though so, too, does a smack in the chops).

This is just the start, though. The Man describes his method like this: ‘I was sampling it in my fucking head and saying it like it would be sampled’ – in effect, using the sampled backdrop of the beat and music as the basis for a sample solo stitched together in his mouth. In the same song, Meth works in references to George Clinton’s ‘Atomic Dog,’ Captain Sky’s ‘Super Sporm’ (which had led to boasts about super sperm ever since Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ – and presumably before, as that manufactured concatenation of bouncers and pizza parlour managers were renowned for stealing most of their boasts). Then there are nods to both Busta Rhymes’ group, Leaders of the New School, and Humpty Hump, the alter ego of Shock G from Oakland act Digital Underground. But he also re-purposes children’s nursery rhymes (a little bit of pat-a-cake), children’s stories (the Big Bad Wolf) and children’s books (Dr Seuss and Sam-I-Am), as well as at least three TV catchphrases running the gamut from Tweety Pie and his puddy-tat friend to the Bill Cosby cartoon Fat Albert and the bluesman Calhoun Tubbs from In Living Color. Throw in a bit of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, and at least one re-worked advertising jingle and you have a fudgy melange of pop-culture references which should trigger little hits of recognition in the brains of a whole range of listeners.

Something else should be pointed out. Method Man is known as Meth, and meth is Wu-slang for cannabis. Much of the song ‘Method Man’ – particularly the Beatles-warping bridge we started with – is a paean to smoking weed. We can think of being stoned as something like watching an internal firework show of our own brain cells. One by one, ideas fly up into the mind’s sky to detonate beautifully (the death of that single cell), a moment of excitement almost instantly forgotten as we focus in on the next. In the way that ‘Method Man’ succeeds in actually mimicking this feeling through its compacted re-referencing of pop culture – this succession of tiny dopamine hits – it’s arguable that this is not only a highly sophisticated work of the African-diasporic renaissance but one of the finest musical evocations ever recorded of the sensation of being baked. That it manages to be both at once is not to disparage it or the form but to suggest quite the contrary – that a music this complex and flexible, a music of re-reference, can be both at once. And also everything in between.