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Black Music Month Day #28

The revolution might not be televised but it most certainly will be digital.  When James Brown

I Hear a Symphony

recorded the song “Licking Stick” in 1968 on the album Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud, he almost single-handedly turned the pop music world on it’s ear.  The recording, a two-bar, cyclic chord pattern that is repeated over the course of the entire song—all the instrumental parts interlocking like a puzzle—is the definition of what musicians call “in-the-pocket.”  It also codified the definition of funk, a practice that Brown had begun in his hit “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” but couldn’t lock down definitively because “Papa” (although he was “new”) was cast in a more than fifty-year old 12-bar blues pattern.

But “Lickin’ Stick” doesn’t move harmonically.  When this practice migrated to hip-hop, particularly in sample-based hip-hop with its revolutionary experiments in digital sound organization, it spawned an entirely new orientation to music for a new generation of listeners.  For most listeners today, and for better or worse, a static harmonic loop is “how music goes,” particularly in the most popular forms of mass-mediated black music.  It’s what is known as a “beat.”  (No relation to “beatnik”).

For those of us who still like some harmonic relief in our bridge sections and shaking bootys, there’s reason for hope.  In the three examples below, we hear different iterations of the potential in this popular conceptual framework in contemporary music.  These examples show how radically expanded the idea of what it means to be “musical” has become.  In order to analyze these


developments one has to think differently—an important music gesture could be in the realm of timbre or rhythm and not melody or harmony.  A small scratch on a turntable becomes a culturally weighted key symbol and semantically rich trope.  The visual is not extra-musical but intrinsic to the entire enterprise (no surprise here—but some of this music is more rewarding if you see the process of its “becoming”).  And on this last point, in this world, the musical object’s nature as “process” and not as a static, bounded “work” is valued.  But wait.  If you really think about it, there’s more common ground at work here than is apparent at first consideration.

Mama, come here quick, and bring me that rhythm stick…