[Parts of this post originally appeared over at Lost in the S0und. I had a lot more to say about the subject at hand but felt it might be a little rude to use ALL THE WORDS at someone else’s place. This being the home turf, I have no problem whatsoever with going long. Enjoy(?)]
Without juxtaposition, a mashup is nothing.
There has to be some sort of A+B tension in order to pull it off. If you’ve got one hip hop artist rapping over another hip hop artist’s beats, you’ve got a mixtape, not a mashup. The trick is finding something complementary, yet unexpected.
There’s no real analogue for a mixtape in other forms of music. An aspiring singer could conceivably sing one song’s lyrics over another song’s melody, but if anyone has ever done that, I have yet to hear it. This is where the mashup artist steps in, freeing vocalists from the constraints of their chosen music and allowing them to wander into other genres.
The greater the juxtaposition, the better the mashup. (In most cases. There will always be exceptions or stuff that just doesn’t work.) Did you ever have the urge to hear Katy Perry fronting Joy Division? Of course you didn’t. Don’t even come in here with that bullshit. No one wants to hear this and yet someone (in this case, mashup artist Oki) heard something the rest of us didn’t and performed Frankenstein-esque dark art to give us what we clearly didn’t want, but find to be surprisingly listenable.
Extreme juxtaposition allows fans from disparate genres to meet in the middle, if only to discuss how FUCKED this mix is and HOW DARE THEY, ETC. Mashup artists know this and go crate-digging with enthusiasm, looking for stuff that shouldn’t work but does. Rock icons are demystified. Graves are pissed on. Genre limitations are burnt to the ground and salted. Audacity is the name of the game and whatever can have a hook (lyrical/musical) hung on it, will have exactly that happen to it.
Audacity. Juxtaposition. The unhealthy urge to put incompatible parts together and coax them into cohesion.
Weakling has done exactly that: juxtaposition with an outsized serving of audacity.
I was minding my own business, browsing the “Remix” tag at Bandcamp when I ran into this. I won’t put you completely in my unguarded shoes, though, because I have no idea where you’re listening to this and who else might be listening alongside you, so here’s this disclaimer:
WARNING: The following mashup contains some language that most people would consider unsuitable. It’s not so much the words as it is the context. Proceed with caution (and headphones preferably, if at work).
The track starts out amiably enough, with Biggie’s flow playing nicely off the repeated tones. It’s not until you get to the “chorus” that you’ll run into trouble. And it’s trouble that starts with playful verbal gunshots and ends with ugly-ass ignorant hatred.
Hearing this unlikely (and possibly unlikeable) “collaboration” featuring Notorious B.I.G.’s “Sky’s The Limit” paired up with samples and a reprehensible chorus courtesy of the equally reprehensible (and pseudonymous) Johnny Rebel*,one is tempted to ask themselves many questions, most prominently “Why?”
*If you’re wondering who or what a Johnny Rebel is, let me fill you in (follow the link above for even more info). Johnny Rebel is the alter ego of Cliff Trahan, a Cajun country musician who, during the tail-end of the desegregation fight in the South, decided (or was prompted) to write a string of singles celebrating bigotry. More (oh sweet jesus much much more) on him later in the piece (my god… it’s full of words).
This isn’t any normal mashup, aimed towards the fans of the rap (or fans of racism, for that matter). It’s not aimed at enterprising DJs looking to throw a curveball at the dancefloor or towards mashup fans in general. It’s not the sort of track that someone sends around to friends for their appraisal and appreciation.
No, this is the kind of mashup that puts a person in the uncomfortable position of listening to a blatant racist periodically spew hate (which pretty much makes it the only mashup in this category). When the chorus arrives in its horribly amiable fashion, it’s like being kicked simultaneously in the brain and soul. After getting sideswiped by Weakling’s tainted bootleg, we’re definitely different people than we were three minutes ago but we’re still no closer to answering “Why?”
Here’s a few theories:
- Juxtaposition as lulz
Trolling mashup fans with an “oh shit he did not just do that” sample. Nothing but shock value for the sake of shock value. While the internet is full of this sort of thing (I’m looking at you /b/ [and then averting my eyes as quickly as… ohnogodno…]), it seems both a.) unlikely that someone would go through this sort of trouble simply for lulz (it reeks of effort) and b.) the KKK members in the photo sort of tip the hand (but not completely, or enough, apparently — I mean, I saw the hoodies and stuff but didn’t think anything of it until the chorus rolled in).
- Juxtaposition as statement (version 1)
Black man trumps white fool. Biggie was big. And rich. J. Rebel is still some backwater cracker with a headful of bad wiring and an ignorant streak as long as the mighty Mississippi. Somewhat likely, especially considering that there’s very little crossover between NY gangsta rap fans and racist redneck Cajun country fans. Flipping the sonic bird to Rebel, hoping that this track comes up during his vanity searches via AOL (or whatever).
- Juxtaposition as statement (version 2 — with complications)
Even slavery and racism can’t keep the black man down. Biggie rose from the hood to the top before his untimely death. Johnny Rebel lives on, all but forgotten. Of course, Rebel may be having the last laugh on this track, being of the mindset that the only good nigger is dead nigger. But it’s a hollow laugh. (Which is probably the only kind of laugh someone like Rebel possesses.)
- Juxtaposition as a tale of two clichés
Black rapper. Violent, sexist, obsessed with money, drugs and power. White trash. Violent. Sexist. Racist. Obsessed with whites up and blacks down. Two forms of self-destructive ignorance. Crime pays vs. white bigotry.
- Juxtaposition as a much larger statement on rap, racism, inherent violence and various other notions
Johnny Rebel’s chorus vocalizes gunshots as a casual threat to both blacks and the whites who treat them as equals. His “wop bop bam bam” acts as an eerie precursor to the casual celebration of violence (most often against other blacks) that drives mainstream rap. “Wop bop bam bam” is just a forerunner to M.I.A. triggering gunshot/cash register samples in “Paper Planes.” Offhand violence driven by cash enterprise/turf protection.Rebel runs on hate and perceived superiority. Rappers are far more nihilistic, gunning down others to gain property, money and respect. Who’s laughing now? The South fought against recognizing African-Americans as equals for as long as they could. Now, without having to put any effort into their hating, they can see the entire system (prisons, inner cities, the Drug War) working together to hand the brothers just enough rope to hang themselves. Wop. Bop. Bam. Bam.
- Juxtaposition as juxtaposition
The “blackest” music ever vs. the “whitest” music ever. Who wins? No one. Or maybe everyone does, drawing their own conclusions and walking away a different person than they were three minutes ago.
Six theories, all of which could be completely wrong, and still plenty of headspace left over to craft half a dozen more. But rather than let this devolve further into Capitalist Lion Tamers’s Conspiracy Theory Generator and Overthinkery, why not just go right to the source?
Introducing the man behind the spiked (head)punch that is Biggie vs. Rebel, Weakling, who informed me that this track was originally part of bigger project entitled “South by South-west: 100 Years of Racial Tension in Music,” featuring various hip hop heroes rubbing sonic elbows with “bigoted white supremacist Nazi punk.” So, the kind of fun that can only be had by forcing people to play nice (via production magicks) who wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room together. (Or, more likely, someone in that room would be dead shortly thereafter):
CLT: Before we delve into this track and the concept behind it, tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do when you’re not lacing mashups with toxic samples.
Weakling: I’m a front-end web designer/developer from Queensland. My job is my other passion to music. I’ve spent my whole life around computers which often makes me late for things.
As for this track itself, it’s quite the aural sucker-punch to lay on the average mashup fan. Speaking as one, we’ve come to expect some outrageous or hilarious juxtaposition (see also: Eminem vs. Lawrence Welk, Rage Against the Machine vs. Glenn Miller; Katy Perry vs. Joy Division) but are rarely (in fact, never in my experience) confronted with something as unexpectedly severe as this.
One minute you’re enjoying the masterful mix work, the next you’re trying to collect your jaw from the floor and your shattered brain from various places in your skull. It almost seems like the track should come with a disclaimer attached (as above). Was any part of the creation of this track motivated by a desire to “troll” mashup fans, particularly their tendency to enjoy hip hop more once it’s attached to music that’s “safer” or “whiter”?
Like the ones you listed, mashups are awesome when the tracks come from polar opposites. One of the first mashups I played live mixed Khia’s “My Neck My Back,” Alexisonfire, Public Enemy, Bolt Thrower, a Yo Gabba Gabba song and a bunch of others. I played it at a family-friendly open mic night and there were a few kids in the front row. It didn’t go down as well as I imagined but I had a really great time.
“Sky’s the Limit” was produced to be pretty tongue-in-cheek. I just liked the idea of getting two artists who would never, ever work with each other into a track, even if Biggie wasn’t dead. Mashup music is usually pretty fun with guys like Girl Talk and Yacht Club DJs playing party mixes. I kinda wanted to ruin that and make something a bit uneasy.
How did you come across Johnny Rebel’s music? As far as I can tell, it’s not the sort of thing you just stumble upon without either accidentally or purposefully straying into the uglier parts of the web.
You definitely have to dig deep to find stuff like Johnny Rebel. Movies like Romper Stomper and American History X brought my attention to nazi punk. One scene in American History X, the bigger guy is singing “The White Man Marches On” by Johnny Rebel in his truck and it stuck with me. I illegally downloaded one of his albums (I’m not going to fuel his music career) and listened to it for a few weeks non-stop.
What’s your take on hip hop today in general? (lyrics, production, etc.) Are you a fan? Who of? Who could you do without?
There are some awesome hip-hop acts floating around these days. Some of my favourites are Death Grips, Busdriver, Skepta, Die Antwoord, Army of the Pharaohs, dälek and Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire. I’m also a big fan of instrumental stuff like Burial, Nosaj Thing and Daedulus. I don’t get the huge fuss over OFWGKTA. They’re not bad – I saw them when they came to Brisbane last but I don’t get the hype.
The production on Death Grip’s “Ex-Military” opened my eyes. It sounds like it was recorded under someone’s house with a webcam but it really works.
I find it interesting that the word “nigger” still holds so much power when spoken by someone who’s clearly a racist. From my own experience, I can listen to a hip hop artist use it 30 times in 4 minutes without it registering as anything heavier than a comma. But when Rebel’s voice breaks through with the chorus, it’s like suddenly being shoved off a cliff and falling into the ugly underbelly of America. For all the talk of “reclaiming” the word and robbing it of its power, hearing someone use the word with its original derogatory intention still hits hard. It exposes that subset of humanity that will never truly be gone: the hardcore racist.
And it’s not just that subset. There’s a strain that lays under the surface of everyday life. It’s not so much flat out racism as it is simple prejudice. On one of his albums, Chris Rock points this fact out: “There’s not a white person out there who would change places with me. And I’m rich!” It pretty much seems that being poor and white is still “better” than being rich and black. (Sorry. That’s not really a question. But feel free to add any commentary or just ignore my thinking out loud and head to the next question.)
I completely agree, great comment. The context Rebel uses the word in is so much more sinister and defamatory than any black rapper could. As a painfully white guy, I can’t even imagine uttering the word in public.
As an Australian, what’s your perception of racism in America? Does it seem to be a larger problem than Americans perceive it or is it mainly present in the outliers on the edges of normal society? Does Australia have the same problem (or perceived problem)?
I visited the US at the beginning of the year and every city seemed really multicultural and tolerant – race never seemed to be an issue. That’s just an outsider’s perspective though.
Until the 1970’s, Australia had what was called the White Australia Policy, basically an anti-immigration policy for everyone not white, Anglo-Saxon. Australia is an awesome country but there is still some deep, underlying racism in pockets but it’s kept on the down-low. I like to think each generation is ironing out these social problems though.
As for the unfinished project itself, are you attempting to make a larger statement than simply playing off the juxtaposition? I mean, basically, you’re creating a project with a very slim audience. It won’t appeal to hip hop fans, mashup fans or racists, which would leave you a mixture of the curious, the accidental listeners and people who like to think Big Thoughts about music. It’s kind of like announcing you’re going to hammer out an unfilmable screenplay.
You’re right, I can’t imagine the project has a big audience which is fine. It’s corny but everything I’ve released so far is for myself. Every track I’ve finished I’ve released online for free and plan to for all future tapes. I’m sure if I had some big, monetary investment in the project I’d think to make something more commercial but while I can make music in the comfort of home at any time of day/night, I’m going to make things that I like, regardless of who wants to hear it. As a designer, I work in commercial art and Weakling is an outlet for me to explore without thinking about how my work will sell.
Are you planning on trolling white power forums with links to the project? (Because you should absolutely do that…)
Haha, I wouldn’t even know where to start. Kkk.com? I just noticed Google suggests ‘White Powerade’ when you search ‘white power’. I’d better turn SafeSearch off and delve into the dark interweb.
Well, good luck with that (and let me know if you need help trolling). Thanks for your time.
[Check out Weakling at his blog, on Facebook and his artist page at Triple J Unearthed. And by all means, swing by Bandcamp and check out his other electronica, all of which is 100% Johnny Rebel-free and, as he said, costs you absolutely $0 to get ahold of.]
MORE ON JOHNNY REBEL & BIGOTRY (POSSIBLY A BONUS SECTION OF SORTS)
Well, you don’t run into someone like Johnny Rebel without wondering exactly how far down his personal rabbit hole goes. Before we start wading into the murky depths of casual racism, let’s get a look at the little fucker, shall we?
[Writer Mike has summarized his look as thus: “I bet the guy looks like an ineffectual nebbish.” Dead on.]
Johnny Rebel is Cajun country singer Cliff Trahan’s “alter ego” (we’ll be dealing with plenty of semantic games during this piece, and this is just the beginning). He recorded a string of 10 singles under this name, sporting delightful titles like Nigger, Nigger, In Coon Town, Who Likes A Nigger?, and Nigger Hatin’ Me, all of which were deemed “too hot for the mainstream” (or whatever) and compiled as “For Segregationists Only,” presumably to cut down on returns from people searching for garden-variety, decidedly non-capitalized cracker music.
Despite this track record (a recording joke!), Trahan has gone on record as stating that he is not a racist, he “just doesn’t like niggers.” This racial-slur-as-evidence-of-lack-of-racism defense is a common self-delusion. I’ve actually heard this statement in real life (more than once). Supposedly there’s a difference between regular (“good”) blacks and niggers. Trahan’s nebulous defining line is based on “attitude,” as in niggers are blacks who walk around acting like everyone owes them something for decades of slavery. But it’s all good because Trahan knows and likes other blacks, having even worked with them in the studio while recording his segregationist album. Not only that, but not all blacks are niggers. Just “85%”of them. So basically 9 out 10.
(Closely related is the ever-popular “I’m not a racist, but…” with the remaining statement being clearly discriminatory. Much like Trahan, people using this pre-emptive defense are often racists, or at the very least, carrying around higher levels of bigotry than the average citizen who rarely begins a sentence on the defensive.)
It’s not an uncommon pseudo-defense of bigotry, but it is one that is definitely unique to whites speaking about blacks. I have never heard a version of this phrase applied to any other race, gender or culture. No one, to my knowledge, has ever said “I don’t hate Jews. I just don’t like kikes.” Or “I don’t hate Orientals. I just don’t like chinks.” The closest I’ve heard is explanations on the differences between gays and faggots. This is generally applied to (again) attitude and certain mannerisms.
[As a bit of a breather, let’s throw this whole discussion into the blender and watch a Canadian gay man sort it all out…]
(This doesn’t include people who use the word “faggot” as a catch-all insult [most of any online multiplayer gaming community] or as a self-referential catchall word to be appended to their status [mainly 4chan, in which newbies are “newfags” and the knee-jerk appending of “fag” to everything has led to the redundant incongruity of gay members referring to themselves as “gayfags.” That would require another few thousand words to unpack, and millions of words have already been expended in an attempt to unbox [as it were] the true intentions behind those using the word freely. Throwing my two cents in at this point would be like pouring an 8 oz glass of water into an Olympic-sized swimming pool and telling everybody how I helped “fill it up.”)
Listening to his interview with Howard Stern, one thing stands out. He seems like a halfway decent guy. I mean, yes, he’s the author of a string of bigoted singles but he doesn’t come across as someone filled with animosity towards the black race. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a piece of shit. It just means that he’s not in full “piece of shit” mode all the time.
Not only that, but he’s not a bad songwriter. If it wasn’t for the nasty, ignorant bile that passes for lyrics, some of these tracks would be downright hummable. For example, this one. (Careful with that — you may find yourself with it stuck in your head, and that’s pretty much the worst set of lyrics to have rattling around in your brain and attempting to escape your lips periodically.)
He comes across as generally amiable and doesn’t spend a lot of time attempting to justify what he’s done. But the few attempts he makes to justify these songs just don’t work.
First of all, there’s the claim that it was “just about the money.” While many people have done regrettable things for money, a small Southern label isn’t going to be throwing around the kind of money that shifts ideologies. Trahan claims to have made only around $5,000 from these singles, which isn’t exactly take-it-or-leave-it money, but it’s certainly not enough to persuade someone to crank out a collection of racially-charged tunes if their heart wasn’t already at least halfway in it.
He also claims these songs were “a product of the times,” specifically citing forced busing. While many people may have objections to this sort of forced desegregation, very few of them recorded a bunch of tracks loaded with non-specific hate directed at all “niggers,” which in the context of these tracks means all black people (there’s nothing in here pointing out the good, obedient Negroes). Piling up a bunch of wrongs and calling it “right” isn’t mathematically sound or even remotely credulous.
Moving a few decades on hasn’t healed any of Trahan’s wounds. He complains again and again [and again] in interviews about the “attitude” of these blacks who have earned his designation of “nigger.” He tries to brush off the singles as something from the past done for money, but his antipathy towards a majority of the black race hasn’t changed at all over the passing decades. If anything, he’s become more resentful over time.
Perhaps the only karmic satisfaction comes from the fact that Trahan/Rebel has been largely unable to capitalize monetarily on these singles. For the most part, bootleg versions and compilations swept together by unrelated “white labels” (and that’s a DJing/racism joke!) have cut him out of the royalty loop. (That’s if such a loop even existed – his accounts of the recording sessions make it sound like it was an upfront payment situation with no back end residuals.) Not that these albums would ever go platinum, but he does point out that originals are being sold for several times their face value on ebay.
Digging into Trahan’s recordings (and the sites that pay homage to him) is like picking at a scab. The wound is just under the surface, healing slowly. Racism and bigotry will never be completely eradicated and each legislative step towards this impossibility tends to make things worse rather than better, bringing with it new inequalities and a ton of backlash.
Proponents of changing human behavior through lawmaking unleash all sorts of unintended consequences and cling to idiotic buzzwords like “teaching tolerance.” To “tolerate” something is to suppress your true feelings while barely putting up with something. It’s not nearly the same thing as “acceptance,” which seems to be the goal, but even those pushing through legislation realize you can’t make anyone “accept” anything. So they settle for much, much less – asking people to give the appearance of acceptance under the guise of “tolerance.” Or else.
[A quick pause for some C&W meets Eazy-E, courtesy of DJ Topcat.]
Racial relations are an ongoing problem in America and it’s not solely limited to whites. From my perspective is that racism is more prevalent than most whites* think it is but not nearly as omnipresent as self-appointed mouthpieces for various races imply it is after someone like Don Imus says something stupid. I think there’s an underlying tension that will never go away as long as “tolerance” is still preached rather than actual acceptance. There’s also a tendency for policy makers to overcorrect in an effort to make up for past injustices, which leads to backlash that makes the situation worse rather than better.
[*”Most whites” does not include those who wallow in “white guilt” and believe racism is mind-numblingly omnipresent, a trait found in nearly every white person around them, (except for fellow wallowers) and they’re even beginning to have doubts about them. These are the type of people that make up entirely new words for genders, sexual orientations and entire cultures so as to avoid words that might possibly designate a certain trait about that demographic. They also tend to create things like “rape culture” out of thin air and proceed to label as many non-wallowers with it as possible, all the while peppering their blog posts and Facebook Shares with trigger warnings. Frankly, they’re exhausting and hanging out with them is about as much fun as driving a rendering truck co-piloted by a talkative PETA staffer.
There’s enough barely-hidden discrimination in the world that I can’t find the energy to get worked up trying to protect everyone everywhere from possibly being offended/troubled by the use of common language.
Example: trigger warnings for “Ableist language,” found about halfway down the page. The language in question? The word “dumb” as used in the context of “Most video games are dumb.” I’m really not sure the internet needs trigger warnings posted all over it. If so, then a simple stroll through Youtube comment threads would be enough to send anyone with the slightest condition into a recursive loop. I think people are generally tougher than the ultra-sensitive “protectors” give them credit. “Helicopter parenting” doesn’t turn out children with coping skills or self-reliance. “Helicopter blogging” isn’t doing anyone any favors, either.
I’m all for making the world a better place. I just don’t think that granting millions of people instant (and permanent) victim status is the way to go about it.]
There’s probably no true yardstick for how much racism actually exists and realistically, there’s never going to be a 100% solution. Generational change is probably the most potent defense against bigotry, but it’s a long slow process filled with setbacks and detours. If nothing else, an occasional kick in the head that results in re-examination of the world around you is very definitely a good thing. As uncomfortable an experience as listening to Weakling’s “teaser” track for his (hopefully) upcoming mashup album, I’m looking forward to hearing the finished product. Racism and discrimination are unfortunate and unpleasant, but the worst thing we can do is coast through life conveniently forgetting it still exists. Tracks like Weakling’s “Sky’s the Limit” mashup bring it all back into focus by catching listeners when their guard is down. If this and the rest of his planned “concept” mashup album startle more people into thinking (and talking) [and writing] about these issues, I’m all for it.