Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Dilla is often said to have reintroduced error into the sound of hip-hop. But that isn’t really the case. His technique wasn’t aleatory, it was precise. He used the MPC’s swing and shift functions to pull some of the drum tracks slightly out of position, into swung time, while leaving other elements of the track in straight time. Snare drums in rap are expected to arrive sharp on the second and fourth beats of the bar. Dilla moved them fractionally forward, so they sounded rushed; he let bass kicks lag and pulled basslines far behind the beat. He kept other parts of the track in strict time, setting up sustained, swirling conflicts between elements. It may not sound like much, but it was revolutionary. What Charnas calls ‘Dilla Time’ is ‘the deliberate juxtaposition of multiple expressions of straight and swing time simultaneously, a conscious cultivation of rhythmic friction for maximum musicality and maximum surprise’. This is nothing like a human, live instrument sound. Drummers don’t do it (not unless they’ve been studying Dilla), and it can’t be achieved by accident.

Dilla rarely gave interviews and so, like King Tubby, another tight-lipped pioneer of music made via machines, he left no account of exactly why or how he came to his innovations. The most we have is a simple assertion: ‘This is my natural rhythm. It’s how I bob my head.’ Detroiters like Dilla, Charnas suggests, ‘had a natural affinity for unnatural sounds’, something that reached back at least as far as Berry Gordy writing the first Motown hits to the industrial rhythms of the Ford production line. And as the age of electronic music dawned the city’s Black club scene had also produced techno, one of the hardest of dance music styles – futuristic, thumping, edged with silver. In some ways it makes perfect sense that Dilla would have used new digital technologies to produce music that didn’t sound like anything a human drummer would make. 

Fred Saunders’s​ wheelwright shop in the village of Sherborne, Gloucestershire, stood not far from the forge and next to the paint shop, where his finished waggons were painted in colours declaring their high Cotswold origins. Fred kept the oak spokes of his wheels narrow and light because the waggons were destined for use in the elevated fields, unlike those made in the Severn Valley, which needed to be fat to resist the riverside mud. Fred turned the hubs out of great lumps of elm, one of the few woods tough enough to withstand the stress of use in the fields. A circle of interconnected ash felloes capped the spokes, forming the circumference of the wheel. The final component was the tyre, made of a loop of iron, half an inch thick. It was placed in the fire until sufficiently expanded, then lifted out with great tongs called tyre-dogs and dropped over the outside of the wheel. Wheel and tyre would then be doused with cold water so that the metal shrank back to its original size, squeezed tightly about the wheel, never to be rattled free by stone or pothole. Fred made haywains, muck-carts and drays, as well as the everyday wooden items required by his neighbours – and their coffins when they died.

Fred lived from 1907 to 1984. He learned his trade as an apprentice and passed it on to his son, Graham, by the same method, continuing a tradition that had existed before the industrial revolution, before mass-production, when objects were closely aligned with the people and processes by which they were made. He possessed the kind of embodied knowledge common to crafters down the centuries, described by Pamela H. Smith in From Lived Experience to the Written Word as acquired through ‘observation and repetitive bodily experience’.  Smith’s study encompasses the period from 1400 to 1800, when practitioners increasingly sought to put their trades into words, composing and publishing craft manuals, guides, treatises, recipe books, tip sheets and diagrams. They were articulating something implicit in their objects: as Smith puts it, ‘the residue of an enormous number of exchanges among individuals, as well as their belief systems, organised practices, networks and accumulated knowledge’. These texts, she argues, enrich our understanding of the theoretical world of European makers, the development of technical writing and, by extension, the birth of modern science.

Two articles on art in LRB. It was a nice touch to put them in the same issue, and in a row. The result is a story that loops back on itself. It's also the story of the relation of composing and performing.   

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