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The Way I See It: We Need New Myths

By Shabaka Hutchings

Probing the musical narratives of jazz and hip-hop, saxophonist and composer Shabaka Hutchings plays outside the time signatures common to diasporan interpretation and orthodox analysis. Moving beyond the value systems and invisible hierarchies that shape understanding and impose context, he imagines another sonic architecture.

A phrase from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, “moving the centre”, stuck with me. The idea that the centrality of one’s knowledge could be perceived in a mode lucid enough to allow for a shift in its parameters and hierarchical biases opened up a myriad thoughts and questions. How can we move beyond the ways of listening and interpreting sound that we believe to be self-evident? I didn’t study jazz in an institution. This has led me to develop a somewhat irreverent outlook on how one is “supposed” to see the music. My perception of the invisible hierarchies which inform how both jazz and hip-hop are viewed arises from this perspective.

Sun Ra believed in the power of myths. He said that societies with agency have the power to create their own mythological structures. They can dictate the terms by which an imagined “super-reality” is given prominence in the day-to-day life of the community. Repressed people lose the power to imagine, to recontextualise an interpretation of the world handed to them. The world of religion presents us with a network of myths aimed at implanting specific value systems – this is true as much for Christianity as it is for Rastafarianism. So where are the myths in our musical narratives of both jazz and hip-hop?

The problem with music theory is that everything needs justification. Ideas must be commodified into neat packages of assumed truth which can be taught, thus maintaining an explicit notion of lineage and tradition. What about considering that all ideas are imaginative vessels? Maybe truth, musical or otherwise, exists only within an ever-shifting relationship to knowledge and awareness. The challenge for artists, then, is to navigate a direction informed by the routes of our forefathers, yet not necessarily steered by them.

In a lecture he gave on Afrofuturism, Kodwo Eshun used a phrase which resonated with me – “encoded language”. I believe there is an alternative vernacular present in both hip-hop and jazz which relates the two musics intrinsically, and which exists outside the orthodox analysis. This idea that music has layers of encoded information, passed down through generations, without explicit acknowledgement even from the participants, fascinates me. It speaks to the question of why certain elements of African musical stylings are propagated by the diaspora. Are there more stories within musical elements which survived the middle passage than we choose to admit? Are we in a position to grasp the meanings of these tales? Maybe the formulation of new myths is a valid way of approaching these questions, if only for the creative stimulus imagined answers can inspire.

Let us then try to explore the worlds of both jazz and hip-hop as vessels for an informational network outside the parameters of pre-packaged discourse. What happens when you take away the notion of harmonic movement in jazz as being central to its intrinsic meaning or the message the improvising soloist has to offer? What happens when you take the focus away from lyricism in hip-hop?

When I was a student, my former saxophone teacher, Jean Toussaint, would stress to me the importance of listening to the accents within bebop solos; how the different instruments react to each other in accordance with the accentuated contours. This allowed me to start to listen to bebop and jazz music afresh.

Charlie Parker performs “Little Willie Leaps” live with Max Roach on drums (Live at Birdland, 1951). There’s a dialogue happening between the sax and the drums and the accents are key. Small bursts of micro-phrases between sax and drums interweave and interact with one another creating a vocabulary that can be considered outside of the confines of harmony. In my own practice I’ve tried to recognise this world of phrasing by viewing it as a language in itself, based on rhythmic accentuation.

I’ve achieved this by transcribing bebop solos and play them using only two or three notes, emphasising the punctuation enacted by the accent structures. A different story is told to the one perceived when emphasis is placed on harmonic movement. The dynamic interaction of stresses within each phrase dictates the framework for balance between tension and release.

Throughout numerous locations during the time of slavery, drums were banned for their ability to transmit messages/information encoded within the percussive patterns. I like the myth/idea that the African diaspora has retained the impulse to communicate through rhythmic structures. Perhaps the use of alternative points of emphasis is an attempt to subvert easy comprehension by those outside the community. “Who no know go know,” as Fela said. In practical terms, in order to more clearly hear the narratives from a centre point of the rhythmic accents, I have learned improvised bebop solos from the masters. Firstly, I recite them note for note, as played originally. Then I perform the solos using only one or two notes but clearly following the contour and rhythmic trajectory. This takes my listening squarely into a place where the harmonic flow is of secondary consequence. I become open to new points of rhythmic emphasis throughout the music.

I’ve tried to apply a similar logic to my appraisal of rap music. I’ve been delving into what I can learn from MCs by considering them as musicians who use lyric tones and a particular spectrum of sonic variation in the service of expressing their ideas. There is a gulf between the knowledge we attribute to classical composers, or even progressive jazz musicians, and what we attribute to hip-hop MCs. And yet rappers are employing the same abstract aesthetics in developing and altering rhythmic ideas, albeit using somewhat limited materials, as in classical minimal music. It’s no coincidence that the societal positioning of hip-hop’s main proponents historically concurs with the marginalisation of their art form in the view of the musical establishment.

I’m particularly fascinated with rappers like Busta Rhymes who employ limited subject matter in their verses. What words they choose to accentuate and where these words fall within the beat cycle becomes even more important, because their lyrical narrative is loose enough to allow them to decide exactly where to place the words that punctuate the phrase with varying degrees of emphasis. Again, there are alternative narratives within the expressive capabilities of hip-hop stemming from the sequences of accentuated words.

Let us take away the notion of lyricism in hip-hop, or at least shift it from the central position. To do this, I employ the same process I use with jazz music. I learn a hip-hop solo word for word and then take it through a number of stages. First I play along to it, my sax mimicking exactly what the rapper is saying but using a single note. Secondly, I add the accentuated emphasis, which the rapper places on certain words, to my single note. Finally, I expand the range of notes I allow myself to use, while still playing exactly what the rapper is doing rhythmically and accent-wise. My note choices come from the jazz vernacular, and how they are structured harmonically is dictated by the accents. The accents therefore become agents which signal either the beginning of a new harmonic phrase proclamation, or a reaction to/acknowledgement of something else within the music. Of course, this experiment in matching jazz and hip-hop has been done before. Steve Williamson and Black Thought on the track “Pffat time” (Journey To Truth, 1995) is an example of a successful attempt.

I am probing the construction of music like this to broaden the scope of my own practice. When a familiar method of expression, such as rapping, is viewed outside its regular paradigm, elements of structure come to the fore. I start to imagine how the music is constructed on a fundamental level, bearing in mind the alternative points of focus and what the actual building blocks are, when separated from the context of the music. This has influenced my composing style. I start to view music as architecture. It’s a way of constructing a consolidated vision by ordering pieces of sonic information. A band leader then becomes one who can dictate the purpose and measure the balance in the meeting of ideas and information within the musical sphere.

chronic cover rsized

This story features in the Chronic (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.

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