Pop Conference

Since I had a great time at the EMP Pop Conference, I should probably say something about some of the talks and panels I enjoyed, in addition to my own.

The best panel I went to was called “Breaks in Time: Rethinking Hip Hop Roots.” It was really about the multiple genealogies of hip hop: the ways that various cultural elements (beats, musical motifs, dance moves, forms of presentation, attitudes, etc.), coming from disparate sources, mutated and coalesced in the South Bronx in the early 1970s to produce what we know now as hip hop. In other words, the panel was focused on how cultural innovation happens: how instances of sampling, recycling, and appropriation lead to the production of something new. This also meant showing the ways that cultural production and innovation come from “below” (rather than, as institutional art histories like to claim, from “above”), and how miscegenated, mixed, and hybrid such innovations nearly always are.

Oliver Wang started things off with a discussion of Boogaloo (aka Bugalu) a New York City Latino (and specifically Puerto Rican) dance craze or musical subgenre of the mid-1960s that is largely forgotten today (or written off as merely commercial exploitation), but that mixed Latin/Caribbean and African American funk rhythms in interesting ways, and that in turn influenced both salsa (which emerged a few years later, in the late 1960s) and early hip hop.

Second, Jeff Chang, author of the well-nigh definitive hip hop history Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, looked at the evolution of the break beat, that rhythmic moment that hip hop DJs would isolate and play over and over again — which is the musical characteristic that first marked hip hop as a distinct musical genre (and not only musical, of course; since the break beat was really for dancers, even more than for listeners). Chang found Latino as well as African American/soul/r&b/funk antecedents to the break beat.

Next was Garnette Cadogan, who extended these genealogies to Jamaica. He traced the ways in which reggae and its predecessors (like ska and rock steady) appropriated and reworked various strands in North American r&b, how reggae lyrics interacted with other Jamaican sources like the poetry of Louise Bennett-Coverley, how the reggae mix then returned to the United States starting in 1969, and how Jamaican music entered into hip hop both musically and via DJ Kool Herc’s famous adaptation of Jamaican sound systems to the South Bronx.

Finally, Joe Schloss looked at how the breakdancing of early hip hop was influenced by a dance form called uprock. Breakdancing was done mostly by African American youth in the Bronx in the early 1970s; uprock was mostly done by Puerto Rican youth in Brooklyn in the late 1960s. Once again hip hop culture was shown to have miscegenated roots, and to have coalesced from a multiplicity of sources.

All four speakers played copious samples in the course of their talks — which was great, as you could actually hear what they were talking about. Joe Schloss also demonstrated the dance moves he was talking about, which was great (not to mention impressive on the part of a guy who looked like he was in his 40s, rather than being 17 or so like the original dancers). All in all, this was an exciting panel, and also one from which I learned a lot. It reached a point where academic and non-academic (journalistic) modes of writing/research/scholarship become indistinguishable from one another, and where genealogical investigations fuse with the appreciation of, and active involvment within, living culture. The panel was exemplary — as was the conference as a whole — in the way it moved transversally between deep involvement in, and critical reflection upon, popular music — something that we could well emulate in the ways we approach film, video and new media, and other forms of living culture today.

PS: there were many other interesting talks I heard at the Pop Conference; but I will only mention one more: RJ Smith‘s discussion of Destroy All Monsters, the band formed in the 1970s by Jim Shaw, Mike Kelley, and Cary Loren, all of whom went on to become famous as Los Angeles conceptual artists. Smith moved between the times of the band and the murals that the group made for the Whitney Biennial of 2002, which presented a dazzling pop art monumentalization and mythologization of Detroit popular culture and the attitudes derived therefrom. It was weird, magnificent, and hilarious, and, as a Detroiter, I really appreciated it.

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