The current issue of Bidoun magazine features a lengthy interview with Kelefa Sanneh and I on the topic of “noise music”. How we got into as kids in the 90s, what all that racket might have meant. It took me 1.5 subway rides to read it!
(Racial corrective: the intro says that I’m of a mixed race marriage. That’s not the case.)
Here are a few excerpts. If you’ve ever cared about the Gerogerigegege, wondered about Toby Keith’s perversions or what that distortion pedal has to do with American race relations, then this article’s for you. Also, K is really, really funny.
Kelefa Sanneh: Often with a subgenre that’s like a noisier version of X – often X is a black music, and the noisier version involves white people. Very recently that could be, adding noise to jungle. But we can go back and talk about distortion and amps. We can talk about rock abstracting itself from blues.
Bidoun: Post-punk abstracting itself from funk.
KS: Right. And often the impulse to make something noisier is to make it less black.
Jace Clayton: I agree completely. Party my mixtapes come from… reversing that process? Certainly by the time my interest in breakcore faded, it was this formulaic, “Okay, here’s the sample, here’s the distorted Amen break.” With the sample being so obviously a black male Jamaican voice serving as a sonic signifier of hyper-masculinity, of violence and danger.
KS: But even there, when you’re talking about a distorted Amen break-what does the distortion add to the break, sonically or culturally? Is it a way of insisting that you’re not overly reverent?
JC: Yeah, definitely.
KS: But in the hands of white producers and DJs, what does it even mean for them to be insisting strenuously that they are not overly reverent of the Amen break? Or to have a punk-rock attitude towards it? I mean, I’m fully prepared to admit that this is part of the appeal of noise music; the racial coding of it is kind of interesting. I think for a generation of white music fans, there is an association of noise with a certain kind of authenticity or pugnacity, related to the conception that that authenticity is what’s missing from commercial black pop music. Until Timbaland or whatever. [Laughter]
+ + +
KS: These days, when you say something is “noisy”, that’s another way of saying it’s old-fashioned. In this decade, there’s no reason anything ever has to be lo-fi.
JC: In this decade, noise would be the sine wave wave. If anything, it’s the clean digital sound that is the noisy sound.
KS: Is this the point at which noise converges with its opposite?
JC: Yeah! The sine wave is at once of the cleanest and most piercing of sounds…
KS: Because if a sine wave is noise, what’s the opposite of noise? I guess, silence… if it’s quiet [Laughter]. I mean a lot of those old noise records really sounded like loud silence.
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KS: . . . Obviously things change, and it’s not impossible to imagine a world where noise signifies its opposite. Which would be totally interesting – a world in which, in America, treble signifies black and bass signifies white. [Laughter] But for now, anyway, white people’s attachment to noise seems pretty primal. I’d almost call it primitive. It seems to touch something in them…