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The biography I’m waiting for: Bambaataa and the parallel universe of hip hop

I wrote a book review, of sorts, last week about Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs and my concern that biographies, as a genre, celebrate a “great man” theory of history. While I remain convinced that we need more biographies of teams, of successful collaborations (an idea that Nathan Matias furthers in his post today on acknowledgement and gratitude), I do have a dark secret to admit: I periodically dream about becoming a biographer.

This isn’t because I believe in the biography as a form. It’s because there are people I find so fascinating, I’d enjoy spending a couple of years thinking about how they became who they are or were, and how their personal stories give us a picture of what was possible at different moments in time. I asked a room full of students and colleagues who they’d most like to read a biography of, and the responses were a fascinating picture of my friends as individuals and as part of a group trying to invent the field of civic media.

When the question came around to me, I told the room that I wanted to read the biography of Afrika Bambaataa, one of a few men who can reasonably claim the title “Godfather of Hip Hop”. What I didn’t admit is that I’ve periodically considered dropping my academic pursuits and researching this fascinating figure.

We’re getting to the moment in history where thoughtful popular books are being written about hiphop’s early years and innovators – Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is extensively researched and thoughtfully written, and Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree has a visual style that recalls the early 1980s better than any text could.


Ed Piskor talks about his Hip Hop Family Tree project

Throughout volume one of Piskor’s beautiful history, Bambaataa recurs as an iconic figure, looming over an interchangeable crowd of short-lived MCs and DJs, as a future-looking visionary. Bambaataa was a leader of the Black Spades gang in the Bronx before deciding to dedicate his formidable charisma and organizing skills towards building the Universal Zulu Nation, a group that was part hip hop music and dance crew and part consciousness-raising Afrocentric cosmopolitan social club. Raised in the Bronx River Projects by his activist mother, he traveled to Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and the Ivory Coast after winning an essay contest run by the New York City housing authority, leading Bambaataa to adopt the identity of an African chieftan, leading his crew of former gangsters into a new artistic life of “peace, love and having fun”.

Throughout the early years of hip hop, Bam was a step ahead of his rivals. Other DJs would look over his shoulder to determine which eclectic selections Bam was using as beats – adopting a trick from DJ Kool Herc, Bam would soak the labels off his records and replace them with labels from unrelated albums, leading rivals to purchase legendarily bad albums in the hopes of replicating his sound. (It’s hard to know whether tales of Bambaataa rocking a party with two copies of the Pink Panther theme are authentic musicology or an unintentional consequence of this tactic.) While other DJs sets had MCs asking the audience their zodiac signs (early hip hop was a direct descendant of disco), Bam was playing Malcolm X speeches over his beats. (I like to think of Keith LeBlanc’s No Sell Out, sometimes cited as the first recording featuring digital samples, as a Bambaataa tribute.) When everyone else followed Bambaataa into the crates, crafting their tracks around James Brown and P-Funk, Bam had moved on sampling Kraftwerk, building “Planet Rock” and inventing the entire genre of Electro.


Planet Rock, 1982

At some point, hip hop stopped following Bambaataa. After about 1986 sampling ruled hip hop, blossoming until it was killed by the Bridgeport Music decision. Electro has influenced every generation of dance music since the early 80s, but you can instantly place any track with rapping and chilly synths as coming from the lost sonic territory of 1982-1985. More tragically, after Bam led gang members out of the streets and into the dance club, Ice-T, BDP and NWA led hip hop out of the clubs and back into the gang life.


“Surgery”, (1984) World Class Wreckin Cru, featuring Dr. Dre. Yes, THAT Dr. Dre. Look it up.

Somewhere there’s a parallel reality in which Afrika Bambaataa is the best known name in hip hop and Dr. Dre is a little-known electro DJ. It’s an alternate dimension where Bambaataa added laser fusion propulsion to P-Funk’s Starship and flew music into orbit around Jupiter rather than having it crash in South Central. In that parallel universe, the Universal Zulu Nation got Angela Davis elected president in 1988 and Bambaataa DJ’d the year-long party to celebrate the intergalactic peace accord of 1999, in which all interpersonal conflicts were put aside towards the shared goals of
peace, unity, love and having fun“.

Instead, Bambaataa has remained an honored and (insufficiently) celebrated hiphop pioneer, best remembered for one unforgettable track than for his epic social hack in the Bronx or his subsequent activism (including Hip Hop Against Apartheid and Artists United Against Apartheid.) Fortunately, the man is starting to get the respect he deserves, from an unusual corner: academe.

In 2012, Cornell University gave Bambaataa a three-year visiting scholar post. Bambaataa responded by donating his legendary record collection to Cornell’s Hip Hop Collection. This has presented an interesting curatorial challenge – the collection contains 40,000 albums, many of them with notes, flyers, press releases or other materials attached, all of which need to be scanned or digitized for posterity. For the past year, archivists have been cataloging the collection, sometimes in public, in Gavin Brown’s gallery in Greenwich Village.

afrika-bambaataa-gallery-5
From a slideshow of the Bambaataa collection on Okayplayer

The public archiving project has attracted a raft of contemporary DJs desperate to spin the Godfather’s discs. Joakim Bouaziz was one of the lucky DJ’s to be invited to the gallery, and he recorded part of his set spinning his favorites from the collection and recording the experience. No need to kick yourself for missing the gallery show – Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow are touring the US and Canada this fall, spinning the records live as part of their work building a Bambaataa tribute mix.

As for the biography? Bambaataa has been promising an autobiography since the mid-1990s. Let’s hope the revival of interest in his records leads to some helpful pressure on the man to put aside pressing Zulu Nation business for a few weeks and explain to us all What Would Bambaataa Do.


While I’m waiting for a Bambaataa autobiography, my guess is that a book that answers the questions I have would need to be biography of social movements at least as much as the story of a single individual. It’s not a coincidence that hip hop grew up in the Bronx at a moment when New York City’s physical infrastructure was crumbling and the Bronx had become synonymous with danger and decay. (Fort Apache, The Bronx came out in 1981, two years after Rappers’ Delight.) The physical and conceptual isolation of the Bronx from the rest of the city and the world allowed a culture to evolve in comparative isolation, which means that a history of Bambaataa needs to be a history of urban planning, of urban poverty and systemic racism, of the US’s housing projects. It would be a history of street gangs in New York as well as a history of Afrocentric philosophy and resistance. It would reach back to The Last Poets and ahead to Native Tongues, explore the rise of P-Funk’s Mothership and Sun Ra to understand “the Afro-Alien diaspora”. It’s more book than I am capable of writing, but damn, I hope someone takes it on.


For a taste of what those Bronx parties sounded like in 1982, here’s a collection of live recordings of early Bambaataa sets.


Long tail audiobooks – a thought experiment

Because I have a long commute, I listen to a lot of audio: public radio, podcasts and audiobooks. Because I work in academe, I have a massive pile of books and papers I need to read: books by friends, books for research projects, classics in the field that I should have read at this point in my life. Unfortunately, there is near zero overlap between the listening I do and the reading I need to do.

For example, right now I’m reading Hirschman’s “Exit, Voice and Loyalty“. I’m listening to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin, and while it’s very enjoyable, it’s not really what I need to be reading right now. What I need is a business, a collective or a method that makes and distributes high quality recordings of books that are too obscure to become audiobooks through normal channels, but popular enough that they have a non-zero audience.

I’ve been thinking about this because I spent part of this month recording the audiobook for Rewire. I am very fortunate that Audible purchased audio rights to the book from my publisher, and even more fortunate that Audible was willing to let me record the book, which has given me some insight into the process and the costs involved.

Rewire will end up being about 11 hours of audio, and it took me roughly 19 hours of studio time to record it. Readers get paid (very modestly, in my case, as I’m a novice reader.) The audio engineer who patiently followed along, prompting me to re-record sentences I screwed up needs to get paid, as do the engineers at Audible who edit out my breaths and other auditory detritus. I’m going to guess that a setup involving a reader, an engineer and a post-processing engineer costs at minimum $300 per hour of finished audio – with a professional reader and more editing, this figure could be much, much higher. (If you work in this space and have a better cost estimate, please share it in the comments.)

If my estimate is right, I could – in theory – hire a team to record Hirschman’s slim volume for $2000 or so, for my exclusive personal use. But that’s not very cost effective: at that price, it’s a better deal for me to hire a driver for one of my commutes between Pittsfield and Cambridge and spend the time reading the book. But there’s surely dozens of others out there interested in reading Hirschman since Malcolm Gladwell lavished praise on him in a recent New Yorker piece. If I can find 99 others, we could – in theory – hear Hirschman for $20 each.

There’s a rub, of course – I don’t have the rights to Hirschman’s work. That might or might not matter if I hired someone to read it to me, but it would certainly matter if I started selling a reading of Hirschman’s book to others. I wonder if this might be a surmountable problem for “long tail” books, which are unlikely to be made into audio books otherwise. If we added a royalty payment for copies sold of the Hirschman audiobook, paid to a publisher, is it possible we could build a model that’s both feasible and legal for organizing adhoc recordings of books?

Here’s how I think it could work. I’d post my request for Hirschman’s book to our site, and ask others to join with me. We’d each commit at least $20 to ensure we got a copy of the recording, and we could commit more if we really, really wanted the book read. If we reached critical mass, say 110 readers, we’d use the money to pay a reader and engineer and provide a royalty to the publisher. If we fell short of the goal within a certain timeline, we’d invoke the punk rock/DIY option – those who had committed to the project would be asked if they wanted to record a chapter of the book and we’d submit and compile our chapters into a lower quality, but serviceable audiobook.

I’m not actually in a position to launch this project – remember, I’m the guy who doesn’t have time to read a 130 page book and needs it read to him. But I’d be very interested to hear if someone’s already doing a business like this, or whether anyone would be interested in starting a business like this. I’m less interested in hearing that I can just use text to speech on my computer and that should be completely satisfactory – it’s not, I’ve tried – or that I should find a way to access books recorded for the blind (IP issues in that industry are very complicated and having sighted people access those works could screw things up for blind readers.) I’m particularly interested in hearing from people in the publishing industry about whether there are presses that would find this a satisfactory solution, or whether any rightminded publisher would stop a project like this in its tracks. Oh, and if you’ve a better name than Long Tail Audiobooks, post that as well…


Corporate America and the Harlem Shake: Perfect Together

When we’re not doing more serious work like documenting geographic and gender biases in media, or helping provide information to domestic workers about their rights, we at the Center for Civic Media like to talk memes. The other morning, over breakfast, we were considering what makes a dance video parodies a highly participatory and cross-cultural type of meme, i.e., one where many people from different backgrounds and nations choose to remix it.

I was particularly interested in memes that people customize with a sense of place. Gangnam Style is the obvious near-current example. PSY’s original video, now watched over a billion times on YouTube, is both a man doing a silly dance and the portrait of a neighborhood. Many of the best remixes mimic the moves of PSY’s dance and transpose the geography, from the University of Oregon to the city of Chicago to the streets of Accra, where PSY’s dance merges with Ghana’s current dance addiction, Azonto.

Of course, not all localizations adapt Gangnam Style to real geographies. Oppan Klingon Style is a work of art, best appreciated by turning captions on. And Kim Jong Style by The Key of Awesome! creates an amusing if mostly imagined North Korean version of the hit song.

Nathan Matias observed that this trend towards localization of videos includes parodies of “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, pointing to a brilliant Welsh version, Newport State of Mind. (See also Newark, Minnesota, New Hampshire and countless others.) I’m looking for more of these local remix memes, especially those that involved remixes on different continents, so please feel free to pitch in on the comment thread if you’ve got any inspirations.

Anyway, our conversation turned to The Harlem Shake, which had just emerged as a new meme. (Now, a week later, there’s a compelling case to be made that it is already played out.) Beginning as a simple dorm-room video, the Harlem Shake couldn’t be much simpler: one person, usually wearing a helmet, grooves to Baauer’s song “Harlem Shake”. His companions do nothing, until the bass line comes in, at which point a whole room full of people join in the dance in the most colorful ways possible.

There’s lots to say about the Harlem Shake, including questioning its humble origins – the meme originators, The Sunny Coast Skate, are prolific video creators documenting their skateboarding exploits, not just the college slackers they portray in their videos. There’s an excellent essay about the ways in which The Harlem Shake co-opts “trap music“, a drug-savvy Dirty South style that mixes hiphop and dance culture. It’s worth noting that The Harlem Shake is a real dance, popular in NYC for decades, with roots in an Ethiopian dance called Eskista. It’s worth noting that Baauer’s song was released on Diplo’s Mad Decent label, and that Diplo is legendary and notorious for sampling/pillaging other musical cultures and remixing them into audience-friendly new contexts.

But what I wanted to talk about is the way that the Harlem Shake meme seems perfectly designed for the workplace. Some of the very best remixes, like the Norwegian Army’s, and San Antonio’s Sea World’s, involve people at their place of work, going about their activities until the bass drops. (While I love the Norwegian version for its sheer creativity, I gotta give pride of place to San Antonio purely on the basis of the sea lion on the right – that mammal can dance!)

Why the workplace? The essential joke of the Harlem Shake is a song so catchy that it compels a whole room of people to freak out. There’s no place like the workplace to show the contrast between ordinary and extraordinary behavior, right? If firefighters can turn into costumed superheroes, surely turning your internet marketing firm into a dance party will be a laugh riot! A surprising number of the top Harlem Shake videos tracked by YouTube appear to have been filmed by the group of people who work together in an office, perhaps because it’s not hard to take two hours and film a reasonably compelling clip, or perhaps because this is a way for different companies to signal that they’re the sort of cool place where employees can take some time off to make a viral video.

(Of course, writing a blogpost about a flash in the pan internet meme is a way of signaling that you run the sort of research center where people who study the Harlem Shake would be welcomed…)

I’d resisted writing about the Harlem Shake until Chris Peterson posted a remarkable link to Awesome, the MIT mailing list where people share things that are, well, awesome. The specific link Chris posted pokes fun at a favorite Center for Civic Media alumnus – I’ll post a version featuring my boss, Joi Ito. HSMaker will turn any almost any website into a dance party, including ours at Center for Civic Media. I find it charming and ironic that it was introduced to me as a way to remix that most corporate of identities, the LinkedIn page.

Writing in Forbes, Anthony Kosner sees the Harlem Shake as proof positive that we’re moving into Present Shock, a new reality projected by Douglas Rushkoff where time moves so fast that we can’t see beyond the current moment. I think it might just be evidence that viral video creators are figuring out how to make their content accessible and spreadable to the point where anyone can take part, even without leaving their desks.

Do the Harlem Shake! Now back to work!


The Globalization of Sumo – My talk at MSR SCS 2013

Microsoft’s Social Computing Symposium is one of my favorite conferences of the year. It’s small, invitation only, curated by some of the smartest people in my field, and attracts a wonderful combination of smart folks I hadn’t previously known about and friends I’ve known long enough that they are becoming family.

Because it’s a small conference of people who know each other well, it can get pretty silly. People are encouraged to give talks not just on their current research, but on anything they’re interested in. When we introduced ourselves at the beginning of Thursday, I proposed a talk on sumo and globalization, which was one of the dozen chosen as the pre-dinner entertainment.

The talk went over well, and a few folks asked for the slides or more information, so I’ve posted it on SlideShare along with my notes. It was supposed to be a five minute talk, but it’s probably more like a 10 minute talk that could stretch to 15.

Here’s the talk:

The Globalization of Sumo from Ethan Zuckerman

The third slide features a great bout between Harumafuji and Okinoumi, but I couldn’t upload the video to SlideShare. The YouTube video features below.

Nothing here will be news for sumo fans, but this was an attempt to share the sport, and some of the controversies and debates that surrounds it with an audience used to thinking about the globalization of culture, but perhaps not about this specific instance.


My friends at MSR have now posted the talk, so if you’d like to watch me give it, here it is.


What to make of Ai Wei Wei’s “Gangnam Style”?

It’s a good time to be PSY. The Korean rapper has become an international celebrity with the unexpected success of Gangnam Style, the absurdly catchy song that’s introduced much of the world to K-Pop, while simultaneously critiquing and subverting the genre. The star recently met with UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, who politely relinquished his status as the world’s most famous South Korean, and suggested that PSY was so cool, he might singlehandedly be able to help mitigate global warming. In perhaps the most astounding development, Gangnam Style has surfaced in North Korea, remixed into a parody making fun of a South Korean political candidate, a development that calls into question some commonly-held assumptions about North Korea’s insulation from global media dialogs.

As Max Fisher points out, the success of Gangnam Style has everything to do with PSY’s colorful and energetic video, and less to do with the tune itself. The lyrics are incomprehensible to most of the song’s fans (and require significant contextualization for those who understand Korean), but it’s got a memorable hook, an amusing dance and an easily parodied video. Earlier songs that meet these criteria – “Dragonstea Din Tea” by Moldovan band O-Zone comes to mind – have spread by becoming internet memes. Like a cute cat photo that begs for a satirical caption, the Gangnam Style video is made for remix. It’s clear that PSY is poking fun at his own unhipness, which gives permission to anyone parodying the video to make fools of themselves. And it’s not hard to parallel the (lightweight) narrative of PSY’s video by mimicking a few dance moves and paralleling the locations PSY chose for his antics: a beach, a stable, a parking garage, an elevator.

And so we’ve seen goofy remakes of the video from the US Naval Academy and from Filipino prisoners, to full remixes, celebrating subcultures as diverse as Star Trek fans (you MUST turn on subtitles to fully appreciate Gangnam Klingon Style), to Minecraft players.

And now, a version from Ai Wei Wei.

The dissident Chinese artist’s version of Gangnam style combines clips from the PSY video – though only clips where PSY is not present – with scenes of a raucous dance party in the courtyard of Ai Wei Wei’s Beijing studio. Like PSY, Ai Wei Wei is dressed in bright colors, a pink shirt complementing a black suit, and like the rapper, he’s an energetic and goofy dancer. As Gangnam Style parodies go, it’s not an especially compelling version – it gets repetitive very quickly, with the same group performing the same few dance moves in scene after scene.

Is this the embattled artist blowing off a little steam? Having some fun on a sunny afternoon? Ai Wei Wei’s sense of humor is one of the great halmarks of his work, but it’s unwise to dismiss anything he does as purely humorous. As James Panero observed in an article in The New Criterion, Ai Wei Wei is intensely aware of popular culture and, in the past, has taken inspiration from the New York City punk rock scene. Perhaps PSY’s subversive rethinking of K-Pop has inspired a subversive response?

There are two clear signs that Ai Wei Wei’s Gangnam Style is meant to challenge Chinese authorities. About a minute into the video, Ai Wei Wei pulls out a pair of handcuffs and spins them, which is hard not to read this as a comment on the Chinese government’s tendency to arrest and detain the artist for any number of arbitrary reasons. And his version is titled “Grass Mud Horse Style”, a reference to Chinese censorship that’s immediately understandable to viewers in the know. “Grass mud horse” – “cao ni ma” – is a homonym for a rude and graphic Chinese insult, one of the many terms censored on the Chinese internet. Chinese netizens subvert automated censorship, using homonyms, and “cao ni ma” was introduced into the lexicon by an activist who created a viral video where children sang a rousing song about the victory of the grass mud horse over the evil “river crab”, another homonym animal that symbolizes the Chinese censors. But if the video is a commentary on Chinese censorship, why is it so… lame?

My friend Molly Sauter solved the mystery for me this morning, observing that this is the first Gangnam style remix that reads as sad, not joyful. Ai Wei Wei and friends dance frenetically, but they never leave his walled garden, while in PSY’s original, and most of the parodies, a wide range of backdrops frame the dancing. PSY’s tour of the Gangnam neighborhood is an idiosynratic one, focused more on parking garages than lavish megamalls, but it’s a tour of the physical world. Ai Wei Wei is confined in his garden, dancing defiantly, but he’s dancing grass mud horse style, constrained by censorship.

An Xiao Mina, who coordinates translation of Ai Wei Wei’s twitter feed into English, is an astute scholar of Chinese internet memes. Reacting to my observation that platforms used mostly for playful speech (cute cats) are powerful tools for activists, she’s postulated that memes are the dominant form of political expression on the Chinese internet. In a talk at ROFLCon at MIT, she offered a tour of politically subversive memes: Ai Wei Wei and friends posing nude as a commentary on his arrest on trumped up pornography charges, pictures of sunflower seeds standing in for Ai Wei Wei in reference to his famous Tate Modern exhibition, people posing in sunglasses to evoke blind activist Chen Guancheng. Because the memes are images, not text, they’re difficult for authorities to censor, as well as being great fun to make. Given the emergence of Gangnam Style as this year’s remixable meme, how could Ai Wei Wei sit on the sidelines?

Not everyone is a fan. Anthony Tao observes that Ai Wei Wei’s video is posted on YouTube, which is blocked in China, rather than on a domestic service like Youku. As such, it’s less of a middle finger to the Chinese government, Tao argues, than the artist “refilling his cache of cool with the Western World.”

Subversive defiance, or an attempt to stay relevant? Or just some harmless fun? As Freud once said, sometimes a grown man doing a horsie dance is just a grown man doing a horsie dance.


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