thesis vomit #3

March 4, 2012

Segregating Sound was an interesting book to me conceptually as it aimed to expose “the truth” about racial politics in Southern music. We continue to see music in dichotomies–black/white, urban/rural, folk/pop–but Karl Hagstrom Miller exposes these dichotomies as having no basis in reality, plaing them instead as concoctions of a music industry that we also recently read about in David Suisman’s Selling Sounds. In the process, Miller uses songs from the era to expose the South as a place that was more racially fluid than we would like to believe, where musians who were able to “play fast and loose with musical styles and show a conscious disregard for the color line that was coming to charactarize the Jim Crow South” were regarded as professionals (p. 54).

But of course, the idea that blacks and whites BOTH listened to blues and BOTH listened to pop music wasn’t a popular selling point in a social world so defined by skin color. So critics, historians and the music industry as a whole resorted to the easiest way to tell this story–emphasizing the differences between these two groups instead of the shared culture that was apparent at the time. Folk “maintained an assumption of isolation…and separated it from its surroundings” (p. 87), which is a completely false assumption since no art is created in a vacuum.

I feel that my research on Long Beach is grappling with a similar dillema of erasure and feel that it is my work to expose the true origins of music and reinsert it into the discourse like Miller. The few artists from Long Beach that have made it into the mainstream are marketed as “authentic” working class musicians, but no attention is given to the hidden histories and intersections that led to these diverse and hybrid working-class sounds. Like those blues musicians who also loved and performed pop music in the Jim Crow South, bands such as Sublime and artists such as Nate Dogg are never recognized for their deeper influences of roots reggae, pop songs and gospel music, all of which swirled throughout the city in the 1980s.

This erasure (or prehaps a never-written) of Long Beach’s music history was constructed similarly by the industry as a way to sell sounds without bogging down Sublime in Rastafarian rhetoric or Nate Dogg in uncool gospel and white-written new wave jams. It’s not, at least, for lack of their own admittance. There is a great interview with Nate Dogg in Vice Magazine where he talks about the gospel influences he picked up from his grandma’s–even proclaiming that he has “a gospel voice”–as well as the fact that he had equal love for the Thompson Twins and New Edition. At the time of gangster rap’s height in the early 90s, the emphasis became on the aggressive black vs. white themes that seemed to arise out of the police-hating genre. MTV didn’t want to admit that a Crip listened to the Thompson Twins, so it was just left out.


(also note that “These Days” is a song about how hard it is to not be in a gang, the antithesis of gangster rap)

Same thing could be said for Sublime, whose singer Bradley Nowell loved, idolized and worshipped Jamaican dub and reggae artists just as much as he did East coast rappers. In Long Beach, Nowell’s love of black music seemed normal, but that fact that he was a former punk rock white dude probably didn’t bode well for record labels trying to map out a publicity scheme. White boys playing reggae living half a town away from gangster rappers hating on whites? The industry probably could not wrap its head around how to explain it, so just like Robert Johnson playing pop songs from New York, it just didn’t.


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