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?
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.