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. 19 SlideShow 01

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.

+ + +

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…


  1. I’m finding this particularly relevant to my current seminar class on Race/Gender Performance. We’ve recently finished watching and reading Passing Strange, the musical on 80’s era middle-class black identity.

    I was immediately reminded of “Hair” while watching, and couldn’t help but feel that their kinship was both interesting and frustrating. Musically, the play moves through Punk in Amsterdam to Metal in Berlin, and I found myself asking “What’s with all the noise?” That being said, the play is clearly rooted in Roots, funk, blues, folk, etc., but I was still left wondering, where did Hip-Hop go? Is the main character, by virtue of class, outside of this reverberation? Or is there important signifying going on here?

    After reading this exchange on the racial coding of noise, I may feel slightly more drawn to the signifying potential of Passing Strange, as there is no doubt noisiness in the search for authenticity; racial, musical or otherwise.

  2. def feeling the sine wave comparison if “noise” is the sound of industry, nothing is noisier than a perfectly clean, compressed protools sesh.

  3. It was something of a revelation to me in high school when the thought occurred to me that the noise shows I sometimes saw in people’s basements, and the overblown bass music I heard out of people’s car stereos were in a certain sense flip sides of the same phenomenon.

    The bass/treble dichotomy with its gender coding (male/female), and racial overcoding (black/white) is definitely an interesting topic. I wonder if introducing variables like tempo & velocity (and the ensuing pitch-shifting) would reinforce these dichotomies or scramble them up.

  4. interresting and nice. the Bidoun magazine seems hard to catch. i should dig for this one to get a copy.
    but btw i guess public enemy was the first adding much noise to the amen break. and then in mind comes this guy from the 60ies used to play quite overdriven and feedback guitar. so i think its going to (maybe) dead end if you look at noise in sort of color issue. on the other hand i think its a cultural issue.

    remember the discussions in the harsh noise scene about brown, pink and white noise… joking.

    to the second quote: physically distortion/noized sound comes from overdriven amping, which adds a lot of squary tops & bottoms to the waveform, so here we go having lots of overtones ( the more squary the more dissonant ). the sinus is know of the most less overtone rich and most harmonic overtone waveform. like the idea of calling this noise, and the sinus test tone is the most annoying sound. but then are harmonies noise?

    latly i was much attachet to sounds that i would call crystal.

  5. @thecrookedclef, of all the genres you say “passing strange” is rooted in, you didn’t mention the most obvious: rock. that explains the punk and the metal. i’d like to hear you tell stew, a black rocker from LA who founded a group called the negro problem, that noise ain’t black.

    i don’t mean that to sound too harsh / corrective. just sayin.

    @urryone-else, i think we need to recognize a particularly american sort of racial play in the conversation. not to say that K and /j are being disingenuous — on the contrary — but do note the use of terms like “coding” and “signifier” — casting race in the post-structuralist land of language games.

    it’s funny to think about how, on the other hand, the stereotype of “noise” has, historically, been assigned rather frequently to “black music.” to extend the PE reference, hip-hop was/is often cast as “bring[in] the noise” or as *black noise*, per tricia rose.

    looking longuer duree, it’s remarkable too how “noisiness” has been identified, even when more “neutrally,” by africanist ethnomusicologists as a common characteristic of “african music” (which is to say, subsaharan music or “black african” music).

    to take an almost iconic example (given the prominence of Zimbabwe in the ethno lit), consider the buzzing of mbiras, a quality amplified further via the addition of shells or bottlecaps–

    i want to read the whole thing. when, again, are pdfs slated to become the new mp3s?

  6. here’s a whopper tying an African preference for noise to — of all things — percussion, c/o Ghanaian ethnomusicologist Kwabena Nketia’s classic, *The Music of Africa* (at least according to a MySpace blog that transcribed some; my copy’s back at the office):

    “the aesthetics of African music reveals a distinct bias toward percussion and the use of percussive techniques… because of a preference for musical texture that embodies percussive sounds or sounds that increase the ratio of noise to pitch.”

  7. @w&w my mention of rock’s roots, I think, is a tacit recognition of rock music, my intention was merely to be more specific, as “Rock” is an elusive descriptor. additionally, my comparison to “Hair,” a rock opera, solidifies this awareness.

    As far as coding noise as not black, no where do I suggest this. Perhaps by mentioning roots music it sounded as if I was contrasting the noise of punk and metal to a “clean” roots music, but my intent was only to mention historically black musical history. Punk and metal, as anti-establishment movements go, are historically dominated by whites, and so I scratching my head a little at the absence of hip-hop. I concluded by saying that this exchange between jace and kelefah illuminated the signifying potential of the music in Passing Strange, that is, punk and metal are no doubt as noisy as rock.

    Ultimately, I too saw hip-hop as a kind of noise, an important addition to punk and metal, especially in a play about black middle class.

  8. i hear you, cc. my point was more to say — why put the burden of representing the wide world of musical blackness (which contains multitudes) on one play by one dude? and also to recognize that the “black rock” movement has entailed a certain corrective of its own w/r/t the “whitening” of rock, incl punk & metal.

    the histories of those latter genres could be written a number of different ways. punk is inextricable from ska/reggae, for example.

  9. w&w: most new “genres” or “styles” seem to be a bastard of different things before. for punk: yes, ska/raggae was a element. rock maybe too, but more in a anti-rock way. and in this also a fail to play rock in some way.

    maybe from here in europe, i dont understand these “whitening” or “blackness” thing. personaly. historical yes, but i dont see a red-line that comes up with pointing musical aestethics in some direction.

    maybe anti-establishment movements are mostly dominated by white, is because from the black side you have been allready anti-establishment. so for white you can choose to join like ska/raggae skinheads the black music, eg. the clean version, or you choose to make noise, that for the most of the establishment is also a attack on the establishment, because it gets rejected. then noise gets establishment and you have to go “faster, harder and louder” (one of the choice in metal and punk in the last 30 years, even the fastest is allready not been topped so then there was this drop to very slow).

    dont know if that makes sense. bad english maybe.

  10. @istari the line between whiteness and blackness isn’t red, it’s black, which makes it much harder to see

  11. @w&w point taken mang. truthfully the play is no less with out hip-hop, i rarely stopped laughing or smiling the whole way through.

    I can’t help but be reminded of sasha frere-jones’ piece on musical miscegenation and how difficult that way to swallow for so many readers (and musicians). And the truth is, the line IS black, really complicating the issue of parsing out what’s miscegenation and what’s not.

  12. on second thought, it might be better to say that the line is invisible or imaginary

    re: the SFJ piece — i’d actually be curious to know whether the same people who took umbrage at the way he drew lines there would also bristle at the discussion btwn K & /j

  13. just stepping in to reiterate: this interview is around 6000 words long (that’s a lot) & covers a lot of ground… lots of provocative riffing. i felt a bit odd excerpting it b/c its a fairly varied piece (well, we’re approaching noise from a lot of angles, and mostly talking about stuff from Japan from the perspective of us as young American suburban East Coast kids in a pre-Google era).
    I hope the humor comes through, too! Not to lessen the seriousness of any of the threads, but to underscore the sense of play…

  14. the line is made of kente cloth (polyester) but from a distance, it pretty much looks (& functions) like a hazy black-red-tan-white gradient and/or Tartan blend.

  15. seems a distinction should be made (in these comments, anyhow) between “Noise” the genre and the literal definition of “noise” in relation to social issues in contemporary popular music/culture.

    in its purer forms, Noise music as a subculture divorced from popular music (especially from Japan), didn’t really have anything to do with race, did it? i always saw it as a kind of catharsis due to pent up emotions/desires in emotionally repressed societies. maybe that was just my take as a young American suburban/urban East-Coast kid in the pre-Google era…

    and on the black/white/noise/socio-popular music tip, figured i’d point out that one of the most influential of hardcore punk bands was Bad Brains. they might have “sounded” white, but they were all black!

  16. oops, forgot to reveal meself in that last comment.

    i too am liking this flip flop of digital-as-noisey where analog traditionally holds post.

    and the article definitely seems to have a sense of play fer sher.

  17. @anon/dand i think the resistance to distinguish btw noise (disambiguation) and the-all-important-genre-Noise does create a *slight bit* of confusion if there are any “conversation mistakes”, but it usefully frees the discussion up for interesting interpretations.

    there interplay btw race signifiers and CAPITALIZATION is much more loaded, tiresome, and oft-discussed wrt other literally named genres such as TROPICAL, JUNGLE, FUNK etc (ugh), so the discussion of (lowercase)noise is a bit welcome imo.

    as for bad brains “sounding” white… smh

  18. w&w: British punk is inextricable from ska/reggae. U.S. punk rarely evidenced such tendencies, except for Pere Ubu. U.S. punk was always much more directly influenced by free jazz, actually. The MC5 covered Sun Ra and played shows with the Art Ensemble and Pharaoh Sanders. The Stooges directly attempted to sound like Coltrane on L.A. Blues and other songs off of Fun House. And the first wave of CBGB bands we often directly influenced by free jazz: Television, Richard Hell, and others made these comparisons explicitly. And behind all this was Lester Bangs who was writing pieces for Creem titled “Free Jazz Punk Rock.” All to say that the notion of punk’s white noise, at least in the U.S., was already a re-articulation, in many cases, of free jazz’s earlier sonic disruptions.

    Last parting note: I find the notion that white music is a noiser version of black music curious and rather a-historical.

  19. didn’t mean to erase the interesting US punk genealogy you draw, sñr sumera. i guess when i think of punk in a US context i always think of it as a post-UK thing (and hence inelectably engaged, at least in sonic ways, with ska & reggae). i certainly hear that in plenty of US punk bands from the early 80s on. (bad brains is actually too easy an example given their rather explicit references to reggae, but pretty much all the “mall punk” stuff i’ve heard sounds heavily ska-influenced to me.)

    i gotta admit, tho, that i hardly listen to rock anymore. free jazz neither for that matter. and catholic as the tastes that gather at negrophonic no doubt are, there are also some particular affinities that cluster the conversation in certain ways. (hence no jazz talk above.)

    no denying that ‘noise,’ ‘black,’ and ‘white’ are all overdetermined here, as always (already). K & /j seem to talk that way, tho again, i want to read the whole thing. (unforunately, my subscription to bidoun lapsed a few months ago.)

  20. w&w: But the UK thing came well after the U.S. precedent. That’s why the Sex Pistols were covering the Modern Lovers. And really, the Velvet Underground remains the pivotal starting point for a lot of this; and again, Lou Reed was referencing Ornette Coleman as one of his major influences. Noise has a complicated history, to say the least.

    Actually, have a piece coming out in a jazz anthology being published in Japan on the whole free jazz/punk rock nexus, as that’s where I came from. Black Flag in one ear, Coltrane in the other. Never much of a pop fan. Free jazz and punk two remain my touch points which continue to influence my reactions to conversations like the one above. Again, I think this is all much more fluid and contested than what seems to be presented above.

    And as to metal, hip-hop, and noise, my favorite sample of all time remains PE’s use of Slayer’s “Angel of Death” as the foundation for “She Watch Channel Zero”. Think through the complexities of that one. But I’m just a knuckle-dragging metal head . . .

  21. @w&w: i mean something like a red thread going from past to present, not a sort of border line.

    now i am waiting for the zine to read the whole and rest of the noise issue. i could sense the humor that is in the talk. also i saw there is a feature with serhat koksal in it.

    punk is a quite wide term. i mostly like the sub genre “punk without rock” – in german 80ies there been a lot of punk bands trying to copy us or uk groups, those who fail i like the most. mostly when they fail in any sense of groove or thightness or rythm.

  22. i just figured some distinction with the “noise” label could be useful to the conversation.

    i might be wrong, but i believe the reggae influence in bad brains came a few years after they had already formed and made a splash. the jazz influence, however, was fundamental from the beginning.

    i actually always found hardcore punk to be very white indeed. and inextricably tied to popular music in a reactive kinda way.

    and i’m feeling the influence of free jazz on punk too…as well as free jazz –> Japanese Noise. i think it might go something like derek bailey to arto lindsay/DNA to merzbow.

    @alexis, i’m sorry i don’t know what smh is…

  23. @aremus it’s all ‘fluid and contested’ for sure (i guess that’s what i meant by “overdetermined” which is maybe too overdetermined), but i’m not sure what you mean by “presented above”; plenty of the responses here, including my own (if i may), attempt to register that fluidity & contestedness (and play), not least of which the initial comments from Kelefah & Jace

    rock on–

  24. At the risk of overstaying my welcome, a few responses to dan d:

    Yes, Bad Brains started as a fusion group, and first heard reggae by way of a double billing of Bob Marley and Stanley Clark (whom they actually went to hear). HR was immediately taken with reggae, and from their developed his obsession with Rasta and his own patois; the others in the band were less convinced, as they were much more interested in jazz and rock. But you can’t understand the Bad Brains without situating them in the larger DC hardcore context, and accounting for their relationship with groups like Minor Threat.

    And yes, hardcore punk is certainly coded as “white,” but there’s always been a huge amount of latinos involved in the music, especially, not surprisingly, in the LA scene. So Black Flag’s ‘White Minority’ was actually sung by Ron Reyes, who was Puerto Rican, with Columbian-American ROBO on drums. And it’s important to remember groups like the Minutemen and Saccharine Trust as well, who were all playing shows with Black Flag and others during the same time. And then, of course, there was D.H. Peligro of the Dead Kennedys, who was most certainly not white. I realize that one’s race does not directly correspond to the racial coding of the music one makes, but I also think that if you listen to hardcore more closely, you’ll hear a wide variety of influences beyond so-called white music. Henry Rollins once told me that they used to listen to a whole lot of James “Blood” Ulmer while on tour; “The Process of Weeding Out,” Black Flag’s instrumental album, is the clearest example of those kinds of jazz influences.

    Much more to say on the free jazz, Japanese noise, no wave, British free improv connections, but I’ll be quiet.

  25. the piece of Serhat ‘2/5BZ’ Koksal in the same issue is excellent, a very nice summary/introduction to his work.

  26. My favorite definition of noise in music isn’t the purposefully loud, aggressive and annoying to the mainstream model that so many Hardcore and Grindcore acts embrace (and probably a bunch of other “cores” too) but rather, the notion of organizing non-traditionally musical sounds (i.e ones with no clear pitch or tone) in a rhythmic or melodic way. When hip-hop producers like The Bomb Squad or The RZA cut up something that, on its own, sounds like a vacuum cleaner or a car crash etc. and puts it over a heavy beat, you end up with, what I consider, the best music that has ever happened!

    Punk groups like Sonic Youth (their early work especially) and the ones listed above, stand out as such great artists today because they embraced the latter (jazzier?) definition of noise in addition to the former anti-pop, anti-establishment one.

  27. @ aremus. maybe it’s too reductive, but my opinions about punk rock, hardcore, metal, etc. extend from personal experiences as a youngin’ going to shows and feeling that it was all very monochromatic (that was in the 90’s).

    then later on as I got older I grew a bit disappointed in younger “experimental” music scenes like free-jazz for its similarly monochromatic presence. i don’t think it was always this case but it has definitely gotten that way over the last 20/30 years or so. locale can definitely affect this. i guess i’ve always longed for a more “mulato” music scene. mix things up a bit more. i do realize that we can’t always control who comes to shows, but a little conscious effort (in developing a sound) goes a long way. the great thing is, many young people now seem flat out ready for some weird blended shit.

    @Flack check out some of Arto Lindsay newer “pop” albums for a well-aged approach to noise…

  28. accellerating: i mean bad brains raggae tunes are ok, kind of plastic, but then fine kind of plastic. bad brains hardcore tunes are a collapsing of harcore punk to the top. fantastic high speeded and brutal. like gimmick punk. driving it to no where.

    i allways loved that difference, which inspired me to make a mix tape with napalm death and carcass live tape mixed with scratch perry and king tubby records.

  29. yeah scum was tge napalm death lp. actually it was more fun to switch the tapes on a party the first time. later i did a tape, but not really mixed, just one track after one. dont know where it is yet. somewhere in all these boxes with tapes…

  30. re: the reggae/ska influence on american punk. yes, the bad brains readily played reggae tracks, but it is worth remembering that in the u.s. this was an anomaly, not standard for american punk listening habits of the time. american hardcore punk was really more of some sort of avant-garde metal offshoot. it is worth keeping in mind that if we fast-forward to the late 80s when a band like fugazi started up, their punk audiences were initially bewildered when they started hearing these dubby sounding basslines. as someone who grew up in dc i can attest to this. it definitely grew on people, such that it is easy to take for granted now that lots of punk rocker types also listen to dub and reggae, but it was not always thus.

  31. How can one read the entire interview on the web, if that is even possible?

  32. lostinsanaa: I ended up getting a subscription to the mag just to read this interview, and also because it looks like a great magazine.

    I was talking to a (white) friend of mine who was a pioneer of distorted amens and “extreme” samples about all this. He said he wasn’t trying to “say” anything, and I believe him. (That’s just one perspective of many, not saying the whole theory is wrong.)


  33. im a rocker dude who makes dance music. i distort everything to make it sound like rock. also, i want all my rocker friends to know im hard, and not gay. i like to put horror movie samples over beats. like metal.

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