Diaspora Sound System
— By Michael Krimper | June 18, 2012
We monitor many frequencies. We listen always.
Came a voice, out of the babel of tongues, speaking to us. It played a mighty dub.
– William Gibson, “Neuromancer”
I writhed in a swarm of bodies syncopated to Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” We surrendered to the beatific drum programming, as Summer’s voice rose in and out of swirling synthetic chords that would pulse, flurry, whirl into continuous orgiastic climax. At each instant of vocal collapse she would extend the O of love out from the opening of her mouth, from the breath of her lungs through the throbbing flesh of her wind pipes, outwards into the recording equipment, winding through the analog processing of sound, and now filtered back into bodies in rhythm, out into the void. We were utterly absorbed in Patrick Cowley’s fifteen minute extended mix of the Giorgio Moroder production, whose soaring claustrophobic build-ups and expulsive releases can still mesmerize the dance floor–send it into collective self-abandonment.
It was my first time hearing Donna Summer’s signature dance hit on a proper sound system. Playing a tribute to Kraftwerk at Moma’s PS1, DJ Harvey closed his set by letting it play “I Feel Love” all the way out. And it stuck with me for days, gliding in and out of my subconscious, strangely without the annoyance of a pop song’s earworm hooks, but in a sort of soothing hum, or maybe, if you’d allow me the leap, even the hushed return of a prayer. Two weeks later Summer lost her ongoing struggle with lung cancer.
As it so happens when musicians who have marked our impressions of childhood and bliss and resistance die, I felt called to mourn by reconsidering my encounters with Summer’s music. Running through the many conversations I’ve had with fellow music lovers, I remembered an interview I did with British singer and producer Steve Spacek for an article on his collaborative project with Mark Pritchard, Africa Hitech. Summer served as the point of departure for our whole conversation, guiding us into the Jamaican sound system, the diaspora of the polyrhythm, and the feedback between UK and US genres of dance music, or, soul and roots music. It struck me that a great many of the musicians we now listen to on sound systems have passed–that not only do we tap into traces of rhythm, forms of sonorous life, punctuated percussion and spacing, that all reach back to the immemorial, a fractured origin of the diaspora whose discontinuous exile resists comprehensive linguistic grasp; but also that many of the voices we listen to are now lost, ghosts of their former selves, disentangled from their once living bodies, tangible imprints of ruined memory. Our sound system rituals, whose many frequencies channel the babel of tongues, ultimately, are haunted. So in an effort to remember Donna Summer, and to trace a bit of how music both lives on in our recorded memory and surpasses it, I decided to transcribe our conversation.
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Steve Spacek One of my earliest memories is—well, Funkadelic was quite mad back in the day, anyway—but they used to have these things during the Holidays at schools, these play schools. Your parents would go to work and you’d just hang out and play all day. But once, I walked in, and—you know, in the area, I grew up in South London—it was quite a big soundsystem culture there. I walked into one of the school halls and there was a soundsystem in there—a massive one. And they were punching out Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” Giorgio Moroder. I was like five years old. I remember hearing that and just freaking out. It sounded amazing, and I didn’t know what it was, but it sounded like my music. The music I haven’t made yet.
MK I wanted to ask about a couple of the themes in the Africa Hitech record. They might relate not so much to what you were thinking about while you were making it, but looking back on it retroactively, they might trigger something to say about it now. In Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” there’s a certain sense of futurism—I think it was Brian Eno who said, when he first listened to the song, that it would mark the future of dance music forever. What is it about certain sounds, or rhythm, or bass, that make them seem futuristic?
SS It’s just the sounds I suppose. There’s all these inferences to draw from. You know, all that stuff sounds the way it does to most of us because of the movies we watched. Sci-fi movies, and synthesizers, and the spacey stuff—you can bring Kraftwerk into it. There’s all these things that you can reference over the years—that when people listen to music, they can draw their conclusions. But, essentially, when we’re making music it’s just the equipment that we like, the stuff we have around us, it’s just that it’s all that we’re using. You know, because we’re not trying to make music that’s deep and meaningful, we’re trying to make music that feels good to us. It makes us feel good, like we want to dance, or we want to cry, or whatever. It’s just music that excites us, because essentially if it excites us, it will excite everybody else. If your feelings run deeply, then it’s lot easier for others to get behind it, too.
So, you know, we’re not really thinking about any of that stuff, man. We’re just excited about making music. Like, the whole bass line thing, for instance, that’s a big part of it. We grew up in the huge bass line culture in the UK—dub and reggae and all of the music that has come after and around it. Just the feeling of that frequency in the club with everyone getting down around you, and together on one vibe. It’s one of the best feelings ever. That was what we grew up on: massive sound systems. The bass is so immense that it’s literally rattling your ribcage. You know what I mean—yeah, that kind of feeling. Some people might call it spiritual, or whatever, but somehow it resonates, it makes sense. There’s some kind of emotion in there that we can’t even understand, and to some degree, all that we find out naturally about it is cool, but we almost don’t want to think about it, or try to understand it, we just want to feel it.
MK There’s a relationship in what you’re talking about between how bodily the bass is—feeling the bass, being there, your chest rattling, absorbed in sound—and yet, at the same time, this way of feeling elated, or ecstatic, outside of yourself, dancing. Would it be fair to call this the cosmic level you’re playing with, or the spirituality of the bass that you mentioned? this double movement of an inner feeling that spreads outwards?
SS Yeah, well, I think maybe it is. Because where we were growing up, it was all about that. If you went to a really good reggae sound system, or a dub sound system, like Jah Shaka. Have you heard of Jah Shaka? Shaka Sound System?
MK No, I haven’t.
SS Jah Shaka had an amazing sound system. It was originally from Jamaica, obviously, but his sound system has been going for years in the UK. And he’s quite old now. You go to one of his sessions, and it’s spiritual—back in the day when we were younger, it was only Jamaicans, and maybe a white person who was into it. But as we grew up that whole culture blended into the UK. You go to one of his sessions, and it’d be everyone there, people from everywhere. He had a massive stack of boxes, amplifiers, and just one deck, as well—so it was none of this mixing culture. The needle would drop on the track, and you’d listen to it from the beginning, and everyone would get into it—and he had kill switches as well, to cut frequencies. So he would start off the track—a girl singing about something spiritual, or a guy with a really haunting voice—and there would be no bass in there for awhile. And then he would get to the dub drop, where the drums and the rest of it would kick in, and he would just land that bass line, man. And the whole place would just go mental. Everyone would be skanking and dancing.
Yeah, and that feeling there, just everyone getting together on one thing, just somehow it all made sense. It’s almost like preserving that in the music we make as well. It’s a really major part of it. Because we make music—there’s all these so-called different genres—but we just see them as one whole family. Especially where we come from, all this music is the same—different tempos, maybe, and different sensibilities, environments, but, essentially, it’s all related tunes. And it’s an infinite set of possibilities within that one family.
MK You could trace back the polyrhythm to West Africa where it was once uprooted and has now spread across the globe. Do you have a sense of that rhythm, in this whole movement, a sense of where you want to take that rhythm or where it’s going?
SS Well, for us, it’s about pushing that rhythm out, doing as much of it as possible, so people get their heads into it, their hearts into it. Yeah, it’s more about finding a way of getting it out there, so more people can experience it. Even now, coming out to the States, that whole flavor seems to be really catching on. We’re quite surprised as well, because just a couple years back, the most prominent thing you heard coming out of the States was hip-hop and soul and R&B. On the flip, there’s rock and pop. But all of a sudden there was this point where—I don’t know who it was—I think, in my mind, I just remember Kelly Rowland and Destiny’s Child came with a track featuring production from David Guetta, the rave guy from Europe. And all of a sudden it was just this rave sound coming out of America. And it’s funny, because that sound was early rave, maybe from the late 1980s, when we first started raving. For us, that whole sound originally came from Detroit, which came to the UK with that whole techno sound, and we just ran with it: acid house, jungle, and all the rest that came out of it.
In the States, it’s always been fringe, and all of a sudden, there’s this mad rave thing, on the charts, on the mainstream, just filled with rave synths. Then being here, the UK bass line scene has taken off—I mean, drum n’ bass has been here for awhile, although no where near as big as hip-hop, but it’s been here. It’s kinda mad for us to see it at last. For us, we talk to people in the States and it’s a new thing, but it’s always been like this for us; in the UK, you have to have a fresh sound but reggae and soul is always at the root of it—the rhythm, and the polyrhythm, and the dub has to be somewhere underneath it. And then what really blew us away was footwork coming out of Chicago, because that didn’t make no sense at all, but it was brilliant, fantastic. We were just glad to hear that sound; and when I first heard it, I noticed the African sound, but it also reminded me of UK grime, the kids just wilin’ out on drum machines and dub and just making really angular but swung polyrhthmic music, with a really punchy sensibility, 808 kicks, and all of that. When we heard it, we were like, wow, that’s our music, it’s coming out of Chicago—amazing.
MK All of this seems to be opening up a lot of people to certain kinds of sound they’ve been resisting for so long.
SS Definitely, because back in the day, when I was living in Los Angeles, or touring the States, if I played that kind of music, it just wouldn’t make any sense. But there wouldn’t be the right environment where I could play it—with a massive sound system where I could drop all that stuff. Because if there was, then people would get it straight away. You need to be exposed to this music in the right environment where ultimately it would make sense, because they could see the crowd going crazy, they could see the soulfulness in it in the way that people moved. You bring ‘em out to the club where there’s a sound system and everyone’s getting down? Straight away, it makes sense.
When we were playing footwork in the UK, a lot of people had heard the sound but none of them were really into it. In our tour last year we played it in our sets, because it was a part of our album that was missing, in our sets—mixing it with drum n’ bass, and jungle, and dancehall, highlife. We would mix it with hip-hop as well. When you get intense, you could mix it with two or three tracks, and then half time it hip-hop before going back into it. And it was just, for us, showing everyone that all this music makes sense in one set; it’s all related, it’s all one music.
MK Could you talk about how highlife fits into your sets?
SS That music is just fantastic. A lot of it was recorded in the 60s and 70s and it’s some of the most intense, amazing music you could imagine. Talk about polyrhythms and swing and bass lines, these guys are on it since day one. I mean, they’re the fathers, to be honest. That’s the biggest inspiration for a lot of crazy music out now. And you listen to the way they play music, they’re doing stuff that you would now program intricately on a sequencer—but they were just doing it live. They knew how to play it with just their fingers and their hands. The sensibility, the chord progressions, the emotion displaying was this feeling of hope, and pretty cosmic as well, you know what I mean? It’s kinda out there, man, and really takes you somewhere else.
MK It’s intoxicating.
SS Yeah, yeah, you just can’t escape it, and you don’t want to, man. You just want to get lost in it. For us, all this music, you follow it all the way back, it goes all the way back there, anyway. It goes back to the plantations, and it goes back further, past the plantations, back to Africa, where they were just doing it with drums. It’s all related.
MK Sometimes I think about it as if it’s an oral history passed down through the rhythm. The diaspora of the rhythm, but also the repetition of it.
Yeah, mantras. It’s like zoning out on something, and zoning in on it. There’s repetition, but then a slight variation, as the repetition goes around. It’s really cheeky and playful, but it makes you feel really good when there’s a solid mantra, like ah yeah. I suppose that’s one of the biggest draws of dance music in general, what makes it different from pop, and other kinds of music divided into verses and chorus. There’s just the rhythm that goes on.Tweet