Rare~Grills Interview

You are a reader in Ethnomusicology. Can you tell us what this entails and what first drew you to this area of study.

I’ve been Reader in Ethnomusicology for two years, but my research has been rooted in ethnomusicology for a long time, it just took me a while to realise it. Ultimately though, my work is interdisciplinary, intersecting spatial practice and material culture as much as musicology. Ethnomusicology – as the study of music through a socio-cultural lens – was a natural point of arrival for me as a music scholar, as my interest in cultural theory and socio-cultural phenomena already existed in my previous life as a cultural theorist. About ten years ago I was writing my first academic publication which argued that graffiti writing was the first true praxis of hip hop, and so the idea of grounding any conversation about music in the socio-cultural, spatio-material, and socio-political climates within which they are birthed, develop, and thrive, became essential for me. I was a hip hop head for ten years before I started my academic studies at university, for twenty years before I started lecturing, and for thirty years before I published my first academic article, so growing my academic writing experience through the field of hip hop culture was an obvious choice. Fundamentally I am a writer and an author, but also a practitioner. Although my discography is slim compared to many of my peers, I was fortunate enough to be making hip hop music in the mid-1980s and was involved with many jams, crews and fine artists along the way. For me, this adds another facet to my writing, and I often find myself flipping between being the researcher looking across and the practitioner looking back. Equally, I have not published as much as many of my academic peers, and I am always grateful to them for their advice, knowledge, and feedback on my work which helps me reflect and progress. It has taken me over twenty years since I finished my first degree to truly find my place, but I feel as though I am on the path I need to be on for the rest of my life, and that is an enlightening feeling. At the same time as my work in hip hop culture, I am also involved in projects that are not immediately hip hop-centric. I’ve written about world music, ska, and more recently the 2Tone movement, and I am currently structuring a book on the Acid Jazz phenomenon during the 1990s, but it always returns to hip hop. Hip hop is the absolute touchstone of almost every music in the world, and we cannot ever forget that. I recognise that working as an ethnomusicologist full-time at a university places me in a privileged position, and every single day I am truly grateful for my job – especially during this era of the global pandemic – so it is also important for me to offer as much as I can back to the music cultures that nurtured me and continue to inspire, fulfil, and challenge me daily. I lead a long-term research project called Rhythm Obscura, which is basically a space where all the above happens.

Two of your books are “Scratching the surface” and “Provincial headz”. What do these books focus on and why is hip hop such a big part of your life? 

Both books were published in 2020, and are very similar yet extraordinarily different. “Provincial Headz” is the result of a three-year research project, and concurrently something that I had been longing to write for about two decades. “Scratching the Surface” is the result of a nine-week intensive writing period, a by-product of the first lockdown and was a way to channel creative ideas at a time when my book tour for “Provincial Headz” was cancelled due to the pandemic. “Provincial Headz” is, in essence, a traditional academic monograph, and “Scratching the Surface” is a non-fiction novel. Both books take the British regional-rural 1980s as their immediate context, and explore the ways in which hip hop culture arrived from the USA and absorbed many teenagers, fully consuming some of us to this day, but while “Provincial Headz” tells this story using interviews, photographic analysis, and cultural theory as an armature, “Scratching the Surface” tells the story solely through my own autoethnomusicological experience. Since the first week of January 1983 – when I first witnessed Rock Steady Crew, DONDI WHITE, World’s Famous Supreme Team and Malcolm McLaren bring the beauty of the audio-visual cacophonic onslaught of “Buffalo Gals” to me through the flickering tape recording of the video recorded off the TV – I knew music would be a major part of my life. For me, this experience transformed my understanding of music, and so I will always be indebted to hip hop culture, its pioneers, and the diasporas that created it. I learned about hip hop – through records, sleeves, video snippets, small magazine articles – this was a thing that you learned about – and living in the regional-rural provinces I needed to seek it out, because it was not coming to find me. It would tantalise me, it would burst into my bedroom through my cheap hi-fi for 18 minutes as one side of vinyl played, then just as fast as it arrived, it vanished leaving a void the size of Devon. So I would seek it out – and many times, the sound I discovered was so not-of-this-world, I thought I’d found God. As much as I learned about hip hop, I learned about myself and my own complex history and identity. These feelings still happens, hip hop still stirs me in such a deep way, and that is why hip hop is such a major component of my life’s assemblage.

Your live streams are always an amazing music history lesson of great 45s including many rare releases. Why do you love the format and what is the rarest record you own?

Thank you! I am a collector of 1980s hip hop, rap, electro, and boogie 45s, and a lover of 45s for many reasons. 7″ singles were the first records I ever bought, and I remember vividly my first record-shopping experience. I won’t go into it here, but I do talk about it in “Scratching the Surface”. I bought Eddy Grant’s “I Don’t Wanna Dance” and Tears For Fears “Mad World” at the same time as I couldn’t decide which one I wanted more. I spent my first wages from my paper round, and I have bought records every week of my life since. I loved the way 7″s are so honest. The whole idea of one song on each side – sure – there are 7″ E.P.s – but my point is you are buying a 7″ for one, absolute reason. You LOVE that song. Focusing on hip hop 7″s, I also love 45s with picture sleeves, and different countries would often release records with different sleeves, primarily as different designers and visual artists would be interpreting the ideas in the song differently in different contexts. I love that, and that’s something I touch on in “Provincial Headz”. My favourite examples are the cool, slick graphics and montage-collage imagery of the Cooltempo and Champion releases here in the UK, and the vibrant illustrations of the Brazilian 7″s – especially the Planet Patrol releases. There is also something very seductive about the 7″ issue of a monster 12″ record, although that is more of a tangent for me. Another significant reason I love the format so much is that there are a huge number of private press/indie records that exist on 7″ only. I don’t buy the argument that hip hop is purely a 12″ format, as many of these independent crews in the 1980s self-funded and self-released their music on 7″, mainly as it was cheaper. Some of these records are so under the radar, they are lo-fi, there were not many pressed (and not many survived), some sound terrible and some are not the finest hip hop music you will ever hear, BUT… that, in many ways, is the point. Hip hop music is not about perfection, it is about expression, and I am ever grateful to these crews and artists that believed in their creative practice enough to commit it to vinyl. They have all contributed to the deeply rich palimpsest of hip hop history. I will need to offer several for the title of rarest record I own (and limiting my choices to records that only exist on the 7″ format) because the main two I am thinking of are a test pressing and a type of acetate (which are inherently rare anyway), so I’m also going to offer up a proper issue or two as well. First, the test pressing of Newcleus’ “I Wanna Be A Bboy” (1985), to which I only know of two in existence. What makes this so special is that not only is it a phenomenal song, but the flipside contains the instrumental version which is not released on any other format anywhere. My second offering is “California Rappin'” (1980) by Brothers of Rap and the Crystal Ladies, and is definitely a contender for the first West Coast hip hop record. It is an exceptionally epic disco-rap jam, and at just shy of 8 minutes long, is also a contender for longest 7″ hip hop record. It is a strangely manufactured record though, it is not vinyl, not styrene, not acetate. It feels almost like a mix of vinyl and acetate to hold, but my copy is a little worn in places, and audibly sounds like an acetate, but it is not heavy enough! A mystery indeed. Needless to say it does not get played often, and I must digitise it at some point and get a carver made up, haha. In terms of regular releases, probably Fresh-Ones and Def-Ones with “Get Nice/They’er (sic) Fresh” (Black Lion Records, 1986, this is Erykah Badu’s first record), or Paris’ “Rock Down (Schoolboy Rap)” on Blue Rose Records, and arguably the first rap record out of Detroit in 1981. I have to give an honourable mention to Noel Kendrick’s “This Neighbourhood” (1985) on Broken Records, and Cool T The Quiet Storm with “Quiet Storm In Effect/OK Hit Me” from 1989 on Dominating Force Records. In terms of boogie, it would be Magic Touch’s stinky funky “Get On Down” (Galleon Records, 1983) which is my favourite boogie jam ever, and electro would likely be Magnetic System’s “Godzilla” (Cinevox Record 1977). All these records I mentioned were only ever released on 7″ originally.
How have you found live streaming in these lockdown times and do you think this is something that is here to stay?

I used to stream on Facebook live a few years ago, then I took a break from it to finish “Provincial Headz”. I really love streaming, mainly because I don’t play out very often, and I’ve always seen it as a great way to connect to people. I did a solo 24-hour 45s only stream a few years ago on Facebook live which was beautiful. I tried to time it strategically – I did it in late June with maximum daylight, and ran from 3pm Friday to 3pm Saturday. The killer hour was 6am-7am, although I did have a few listeners in Hong Kong, China, and Australia that kept me going. I usually like a drink when I stream, but of course that was too risky, so I didn’t spark up a cider until 2pm, then spend the last hour on a high, buzzing from lack of sleep and great records. My last record was “Gangsters” by The Special AKA, then I logged off, ordered a Chicken Phall and a Keema Nan, watched a bit of telly, and then slept for 18 hours. I get a buzz from streaming. Even now, writing this on a Friday afternoon, I’m buzzing about streaming tomorrow night. Live streaming has given DJs a great platform and brought a huge amount of awareness to new music, and offered a support to people that miss that live music interaction, it is definitely here to stay. I wrote an article about it for The Conversation here at the end of last year: Clubbing at home: how live streaming made DJ sets more inclusive (theconversation.com) . The one thing that I failed to mention in that short article is how much the presence of an online audience means to the DJ, so the likes, comments, and other forms of engagement are crucial…it is good for DJs’ wellbeing to know they are not just playing records to an ethereal void.

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