Photo by Erez Avissar/Courtesy of the artist
Right this moment, likely somewhere in a shabby gray apartment building on the outskirts of a sprawling, sweltering mega-city, a teenager is making beats in a bedroom on an old computer loaded up with bootlegged music production software. The rapid-fire lo-fi results might light up a local music scene, exploding from cell phone ringtones to parties on makeshift sound systems. But music distribution is a fickle beast in the 21st century. Despite the fact that the internet—and cheaper and more widespread technology generally speaking—has made it feel like we have the entire world at our fingertips, that music may or not even get beyond the neighborhood that birthed it. If it does, it's likely to mutate in head-scratching, unexpected ways.
Jace Clayton—a musician, writer, and cultural critic—is fascinated by these digital dynamics and their analog antecedents. The whats, whys, hows, and politics of music production are themes that have guided his eyes and ears over the last decade-plus working both as DJ /rupture and under his own name. But now, he has a text to back it up, in the form of his first full book, Uproot: Travels in 21st Century Music and Digital Culture, released yesterday by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
Clayton is an eagle-eyed observer of contemporary trends in music, with a unique insider and outsider perspective, since he's lived through many of shifts as both a critic and a participant. Performing as DJ /rupture, Clayton vaulted to success in 2001 on the Internet-distributed strength of his three-turntable, sixty-minute mix Gold Teeth Thief. His genre-exploding sets, relying on equal parts digging for dusty records and the metadata-less archives of mp3 hosting sites, have been in-demand ever since. 15 years later, gigs across the globe have put him on the frontlines of the analog-to-digital transition, leaving him keenly aware of its impacts on DJ culture. As a music writer for publications like The Fader, n+1, and Frieze, he's reported firsthand on hybrid sounds like cumbia digital in Buenos Aires, tribal in Monterrey, Berber pop in Morocco, and electro chaabi in Cairo. As a musician, he dabbles across the digital divide—reluctantly embracing a virtual DJ set-up after a car accident destroyed his record collection on tour, but also perfecting live performances with punk guitarist Andy Moor and Clayton's own music ensemble, Nettle, where traditional Mediterranean rhythms meet breakcore.
Uproot draws on all of these experiences and offers a wide-reaching series of vignettes, riffs, and mini-essays to knit them all together. Clayton critiques the concept of "world music" by pointing to rough-and-tumble adaptations of house, techno, and hip-hop that are very global, but unlikely to pass the "authenticity" muster with WOMEX gatekeepers. He interrogates the politics of sampling, explaining how his early enthusiasm for Jamaican vocal snippets in '90s jungle tracks waned in the drum and bass era as they morphed into "clichéd associations of black masculinity with aggression." And as the music industry continues its perpetual crisis mode, he eagerly anticipates the distribution platforms that will follow. "I want the giants to fall even faster," he writes, "so we can see what weird flowers start blooming in the spaces left vacant."
Asking questions without providing many definite answers, Clayton thinks like an academic—but thankfully doesn't write like one. His prose is still erudite, but it's also compulsively readable, like a choose-your-own-adventure for music nerds. THUMP spoke to him over the phone from his home in New York City ahead of the book's release party at Rough Trade in Brooklyn.
THUMP: Your globetrotting adventures as a DJ and music writer take a prominent place in this book as you tell stories from Beirut, Monterrey, Cairo, Casablanca, and the Berber highlands of Morocco, among others. If you could add another chapter detailing a first-person investigation into a digital music scene that excites you, where would it be?
Jace Clayton: Seoul. K-Pop is totally fascinating. What's going on with pop music sort of moves into the global spread. Bollywood or Nollywood is a good reference [for understanding K-Pop]. "What's the movie?" You're like, "It's an action/adventure/comedy/romance/musical/spy..." On and on. At its best you have those kinds of moments in Korean pop—that sort of poly-stylistic approach, but very much a carnivorous and relevant approach to genre that feeds into production.
You noticed the contemporaneous rise of Auto-tune in two seemingly disparate places—North African berber pop music and Dirty South commercial hip-hop. What other curious digital trends in voice manipulation are out there?
Voice-specific Vocaloid software, like Hatsune Miku, an avatar in Japan. People know her as a software bundle. She's always 16, she's got sea-green hair. And she's a pop star in Japan; she fills stadiums. It's using a software license from Yamaha. They had made this bundle of codes called Vocaloid, which is basically a vocal synthesizer. It didn't take off until they gave it an anime embodiment and that was Hatsune Miku.
There will be Hatsune Miku conventions here in the States, every now and then she'll perform, but it's not a well-known thing. That's a really interesting example. People use this Vocaloid software, making all this music with it. They'll do incredibly detailed programming. If you're not listening carefully you can't even tell it's been made by a robot.
You dedicate a chapter to your own digital tool, Sufi Plug Ins, a music-making software suite based on non-Western notions of sound, and highlight some of the immediate results in the book, like a composer from Bahrain who sent you "a bristling noise track [...] It sounded like... chaos." What else have you heard of note that was made with Sufi Plug Ins?
The stuff done with it has actually become kind of amazing. One of the plug ins is a clapping drum machine—think of flamenco handclaps—and a lot of hip-hop producers like to use that. High Priest from Antipop [Consortium] was I think the first person to use Sufi Plug Ins on a vinyl record.
A really amazing drummer, Greg Fox, has a band called Liturgy and he does his own stuff as Guardian Alien. He puts one of the constant factors through an arpeggiator, doesn't adjust any of the sound generating, or sound-tweaking knobs, and just uses that in a really interesting way, so he's just playing along. We did a show together years ago and he was doing that.
You open one chapter with a story of how you refused to play underneath a Red Bull banner—not having been informed of the corporate sponsorship ahead of time—but conclude with a less militant stance, or at least an acknowledgment that big companies, Red Bull chief among them, have become major patrons of exciting, avant-garde experiments in digital music. Do you feel like you have gone soft on the issue over time?
That is an example of a chapter asking, "How can I communicate this deep and kind of nuanced ambivalence I have towards all of that?" Getting soft, that's not the preferred metaphor, but I am certainly interested in musicians who embrace as part of their practice what I call "distributional aesthetics." Where you appear, how your information circulates—that matters.
Are people rejecting that? It's kind of exciting and interesting. It was like, "Why rush to play the museum? Why rush to play the Boiler Room party sponsored by Ray-Ban? Why rush to have an interview with a Vice website?"
That's asking those deeper questions like, "What is the value of music? Why do we gather around music in the first place? Who do we want to prompt those gatherings?" It's less like, "Oh, what's your stance on this?" And more like—What is the music you love? How do you find it? How do you support it? Is it a parasitic relationship? Is it a giving relationship? Is it generative?
You also describe alternatives that thrive completely apart from the current economy of the digital music industry, like the cumbia sonidera flourish between Mexico and its immigrant communities. How do artists from that close-knit milieu respond to the invitation to engage with a completely different, unrelated audience?
With all of my conversations with people like sonideros, active here and in Mexico City, they're all thrilled. People like Sonido Kumbala, one of New York City's longest running sonideros, he's playing the book release party and he's super into it. The funny thing there is like, what about corporate sponsorship. I mean those are hugely commercial events. People throw these parties to make money obviously but there is this huge social function that they serve as well. So that's what gives them so much of the resonance. For him, he's also aware that they go hand-in-hand with creating this kind of alternative gathering site for contemporary inner-city Mexicanness.
You spent some memorable time at the Arab Music Archiving and Research Foundation in Beirut, and contrast that vast, burdensome physical library with the obsessively precise digital archive that briefly appeared online through the short-lived file-sharing service Oink. Should the digital music community be more conscientious about posterity in what can feel like a somewhat throwaway format?
No, I'd hope that artists would fold those questions into their own way of being in the world. It's not my place to say, "Yes, archive all the mixes, archive everything, put it up online with Flac files." Obviously the general default towards overall streaming is troubling so far for the same reason that Oink was troubling. [What's available is] only music that has been shepherded through this sort of commercial label system, which is such a tiny fraction of what you listen to.
But I am interested in any kind of conversation about, "What does it mean to have access? What does it mean if you put up your edit and then it's taken down four weeks later by some automated spider that's been listening to it?" How do you nurture the things that you care about? That could be a focus on metadata, it could be create your own server, host it all there. There are so many different ways. Make a book, make posters, stop doing sounds at all, make scores. I look forward to that kind of conversation expanding more.
Right now, the emphasis is on, "Give us free content." Everybody wants free content. "Give us your mix, especially DJ mixes." There's a push to produce, produce, produce, but then it's like once your little thing has served its sort of promotional or monetary [purpose], is this going to be interesting five minutes later? Should it be? How do you think you are holding onto stuff? There are no easy answers and everything is always changing.
Jace Clayton's book Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture is out now via Farrar, Straus and Giroux.