Staging critical history within the space of the beat; or: What cultural historians can learn from Public Enemy, NTM, MC Solaar & George Clinton
University of Otago
Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts
NTM’s ‘That’s My People’ echoes through the Paris metro, whilst director Mark Pellington stages a history of Black resistance across a New York wall. Images of le graff flick over as though on an antique slide projector, while Chuck D reminds us of when ‘Black people died’ and ‘the other man lied’. Hip-hop and related sample-based musics inhabit a world which is deeply historicised—indeed historiographic. What then might we learn from hip-hop, and what kind of historical relations does it make possible? The syncopation of beat stages the gap between now (get up on the down beat) and then (get down on history). Funk as history. MC Solaar’s ‘Nouveau Western’ does not simply comment on the past and Americanism. Rather director Stéphane Sednaoui’s fluid, tunnelling montage moves us through space and time faster than a train bearing the latest tag, than the iron horses linking America’s Westside with the East, or even the TGV joining Les Halles to the banlieues. Hip-hop is less a narrative project, than a spatial one. It enables us to rethink history and music as spatial juxtaposition: the aesthetics of the montage. NTM’s bass and Terminator X’s noise bounce off and penetrate concrete, bodies (do you feel it?), history and location. Hip-hop as acoustic dialectics. Expanding on Kodwo Eshun’s model of AfroFuturism, I characterise hip-hop’s spatio-acoustic project as ethnographic Surrealism (James Clifford), in which juxtapositions defy normal narrative time and space, producing new insights and confluences, from the Mothership to Ancient Egypt, from Mississippi to West Germany, from Picasso to the Ivory Coast. In George Clinton’s words, this ‘shines the spotlight on ‘em!’ onto various non-dancing subjects, placing them into a shifting acoustic space wherein all things dance and clash.