Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Producers in the studio with Jay-Z: A primer

No I.D. and Jay-Z

Yesterday, in response to a link posted by the Jay-Z Daily, I said that there needs to be some kind of "Producers in the Studio with Jay-Z" book. It would be a collection of interviews with producers talking about their experiences with the rapper. Reading through such interviews over the years has been a cool way to see how Jay-Z's artistic processes work. Until someone produces such a book though, I decided to start compiling a few of the pieces that caught my attention.

1. NO I.D. talks pushing Jay-Z (2018)
I don't think we discussed anything. Another part of the beauty was: I saw that he, from our initial conversation, wanted to say more and wanted to say some things that he hadn't said. Part of my growth as a producer was not just about making beats but also helping in the process of inspiring the song and making the song the center. This album is about Shawn Carter, Jay-Z, opening up, and me scoring that.

2. Just Blaze Details The Making Of Jay Z's "Public Service Announcement" (2013)
In between hours of press he would come in, drop four bars, go do another press round, come back in drop four more bars, go to the press room, come back in scrap the first eight bars and just get a whole new eight bars and add four more bars, and go to the press room. Which means as he’s doing the press he’s thinking about this beat in the back of his mind. Coming up with the song…By the end of the night he’s like ‘Alright, let me hear it.’ And he’s like ‘nah’ and he walks out. So, he comes in the next day. Spits the whole thing over in one take…Two or three weeks later we’re at the Garden and the entire arena knows the words.

3. Producers Cool & Dre on What It's Like to Make a Beyonce and Jay-Z Album (2018)
"713" was one of those nights when they were up in our room upstairs. They loved the hook, they loved the beat. Beyoncé had told Jay, "Yo, we need to do a hardcore love song, like back in the day, when Method Man and Mary J. [Blige] had that hard record together. Jay was like, "I know exactly what beat to do this to," and pulled this one out the stash. I remember the night he pulled us into his studio and played it for us, he was like, "No one knows the story of how we met. This was the first time I'm ever telling this story." Boom, he plays it for us.
4. Timbaland Breaks Down Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)
I played this one beat. I said, ‘I got something just for you.’ And I played it and he was like (makes surprised face), ‘Oh my God.’ From then, we did two off bat. Then he was like, let’ just go in. And that’s how we did it. We didn’t plan it. It just happened.

5. Rick Rubin on "99 Problems" (2015)
Jay came into my studio every day for like a week, I kept trying things that I thought would sound like a Jay record, and after like three or four days he said, “I want to do something more like one of your old records, Beastie Boys-style.” Originally that’s not what I was thinking for him, but he requested that vibe, and we just started working on some tracks.
6. Pharrell compares Jay-Z to the Oracle (2013)
There’s no pen and paper anywhere in sight. You gotta see this guy listening to the music, mumbling to himself, and then he goes into the booth. It sounds a lot like the Oracle at Delphi’s process. You know, she’s leaning over cracks of—in the cave that have like methane hydrate coming out. Just high as an eagle’s ass. She’s mumbling shit and the next thing you know she has a prophecy. It’s a little crazy. And by the way, I mean, it would seem that I was being artful by stating in that way. And showing you that super-close parallel, but if it weren’t true I wouldn’t be able to say that. That’s the super crazy thing about this dude.
7. Just Blaze discusses making the Jay-Z connection (2013)
I'm just elated to be in the room with him, you know. And umm, he goes in the booth to do vocals to the song that ended up becoming "Parking Lot Pimping." So while he's in there I have an MP in the room I Tommy MPC I just make it beating my headphones, playing it for him when he comes out, and he's like 'what's this? this is crazy?' I'm like I jus made this right now. he's like "how? I was in the booth?" I was like 'I just had the headphones on.' He's like 'so you just made this while I was rapping just now.' He's like 'alright, stick around. you're gonna make, we're gonna make you a star. And that room over there is yours." And that was that. make you a star." And that was that.
8. Jay-Z & Puff Daddy in studio

9. Young Guru talks about mastering Jay-Z's The Blueprint 3 (2011)

10. Studio Session: Jay-Z's "Magna Carta Holy Grail" (2013)

• Notebook on Jay-Z

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Black Panther, Riri Williams, and Hip-Hop Variant Digital Collections

I was recently writing about the digital collections and activities I organized around books by Octavia Butler and Frederick Douglass. In some respects, I became inspired to produce these collections based on my comic book collection. This past week, I shared my comic book digital collections with students in the African American Literatures and Cultures Institute.

For the last couple of years, I've organized activities with tablets to showcase an array of comic book covers. I've shown the covers of the 25 variants of Black Panther #1, an array of images of Riri Williams, who played Ironheart, and select images from Marvel's Hip-Hop Variants. The comic books contain such visually striking covers that I was inclined to organize and share images of them with students. I produced short audio compositions to provide some context as well.

student browsing digital collection on comic book character Riri Williams

The uses of digital collections are part of my continuing effort to experiment with ways of introducing students to large bodies of artistic compositions in a single sitting. Like, how do we use digital technologies to expand what students are capable of seeing in the classroom?

A Notebook on African American Literatures and Cultures Institute

Monday, June 11, 2018

Frederick Douglass, Octavia Butler, and Digital Collections

For quite some time now, I've been collecting various editions of books by Frederick Douglass and Octavia Butler. My efforts to share special collections with my students and make them aware of African American Book History led me to organize exhibits on Douglass and Butler, as well as digital projects featuring their works. 

Recently, for the African American Literatures and Cultures Institute, I organized photographs of Douglass and Butler books I own, along with some images of Butler books I collected online, and organized them into folders on tablets. Students can then scroll through the dozens of images -- the digital collections -- to get a sense of what all the books look like together. The book covers are fascinating for different reasons.

Butler covers

Douglass books

What happens when Book History, African American literary studies, and digital humanities meet? The presentation of these collections of Douglass and Butler books on tablets provide some answers.

A Notebook on African American Literatures and Cultures Institute
A Notebook on Octavia Butler
A Notebook on Frederick Douglass

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Frederick Douglass's transformation from MLK-like to Malcolm-like abolitionist

For the longest, I, along with many others, thought and talked about the transformation of Frederick Douglass from boy to slave to (free) man. There's that often quoted line from the Narrative where Douglass goes, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man." Ok. But Robert Levine's The Lives of Frederick Douglass has me giving more thought to Douglass's transformation from one kind of abolitionist to another kind of abolitionist, especially between the years 1841 and 1853.

It's fascinating, following along as Levine describes how Douglass moved from an abolitionist who embraced nonviolence (moral suasion) to one who embraced physical resistance to slavery. A somewhat analogous example for modern folks would be akin to observing an MLK figure become like Malcolm. Among other factors, Douglass was deeply moved by the story of Madison Washington, a former slave who led a mutiny aboard the ship, Creole, which was transporting 134 additional slaves. Telling and retelling the story of Washington to audiences during his lectures was integral to Douglass's transformation.

I've heard people discuss the differences between abolitionists and antislavery advocates. Levine doesn't really do that. Instead, he's constantly showing that the terms "abolition" and "antislavery" were used interchangeably. After all, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who initially employed and supported Douglass, was the co-founder of the American  Anti-Slavery Society.

Prior to Douglass's affiliation with the groups, abolitionist/antislavery advocates were breaking off, non-amicably into various factions. The Garrison-led group viewed the U.S. Constitution as a pro-slavery document. They believed in moral suasion, and they were radical in the sense that they did not believe in affecting change through formal political, governmental processes. A more conservative group disagreed with those approaches and beliefs and broke off from Garrisonians to form the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. And yet another group, the Liberty Party, separated from Garrison's group, viewed the Constitution as an anti-slavery document, and supported the right of slaves to enact violence against their captors.

Douglass worked with and was financially supported by each of those antislavery organizations at different moments, and additional ones during his time in England and Ireland from 1845 - 1847. Douglass's intellectual development, various travels, and many activities led to his transformation from abolitionist to political abolitionist, but economic factors were important as well. Financial support from British supporters as well as from the Liberty Party leader Gerrit Smith made it possible for Douglass to found his own newspaper and break away from Garrison. 

Frederick Douglass's (Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society) Narrative
A Notebook on Frederick Douglass

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Digital devices and African American literary studies

During the first week of the African American Literatures and Cultures Institute, I coordinated activities utilizing tablets, audio devices, and flash drives. The content for the projects included digital collections on Frederick Douglass and Octavia Butler, an audio production on Malcolm X speeches, and a file with more than a dozen black women poets reciting their works on YouTube.

The uses of digital devices and preparation of various digital collections have expanded all kinds of possibilities for what materials I can share with students related to African American literary studies. So that students have more freedom on the sequence of exploring various items, I created audio compositions on various topics. They can choose the order of the short discussions on topics by me that they would like to hear first, second, and third.

What next, though, with the use of various digital devices? How do we optimize the possibilities? I'm certainly going to want to talk to more students about their responses to the different modes and methods of delivering content. That'll help me get a sense of limits and possibilities, what I need to do more and less of in the future.

A Notebook on African American Literatures and Cultures Institute

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Frederick Douglass's (Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society) Narrative

I've been enjoying reading The Lives of Frederick Douglass (2016) by Robert S. Levine, who makes a case for reading well beyond Douglass's Narrative (1845). Early on in the book though, Levine is raising some observations about Douglass and his book that have me rethinking some longstanding positions. Levine's research and writing also indicate some reasons why the Narrative is our most famous slave narrative.  

So many people have highlighted the tension between Douglass and his one-time friend, the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (and more broadly the tensions between black writers and white editors) that we tend to take such negative tension as a given. Not long after publishing the Narrative, Garrison and Douglass parted ways, and not on friendly terms. People view the relationship as troubling in part because in his book My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and later writings, Douglass discusses how he felt mistreated by Garrison and his Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Alright.

And here's where Levine makes an intervention, pointing out that "Douglass and Garrison had come to hate each other by the early 1850s, and that Douglass's 1855 remarks on the early to mid-1840s Garrison cannot be fully trusted" (39). Could it be that Douglass's dispute with Garrison led to the presentation of some, hmmm, alternative facts?

Levine makes a really compelling case. He shows that between 1841 and 1845, Douglass and Garrison in fact had a productive collaborative relationship. Garrison employed Douglass to give lectures for his anti-slavery society. Next, Garrison's group edited and published the Narrative, and they further offered really extensive marketing for the book and author in the society's publication, Liberator.

And you know, Levine reveals that Douglass didn't just give lectures and then later write a slave narrative. No, by tracing the speeches Douglass gave and newspaper coverage he received, Levine clarifies how Douglass utilized his lectures as a way of selecting, testing, and clarifying what he would write in the Narrative.

According to Levine, "we might think of Douglass's Narrative as emerging from a series of storytelling possibilities in which Douglass was given actual audiences (always important to the development of one's writing and speaking) and a set of assumptions about abolitionism which empowered him as a writer and speaker" (41).  

Levine provides evidence on how Douglass, who had no formal education, needed and requested editorial assistance in those years just out of slavery. The ex-slave turned lecturer and writer received that assistance from Garrison and the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Levine also shows how actively the society publicized and marketed the Narrative. That early institutional and promotional support, I'm inclined to believe, raised the chances that Douglass's book would stand above the rest. 

None of what Levine offers should be read as a way of diminishing Douglass's extraordinary achievements and brilliance. Instead, the project exposes us to "the productive role of Garrison and his antislavery society in the making of Douglass's first autobiography" as well as Douglass's "skill in negotiating his situation" working with the group and moving on "to new ways of telling his life story" (33, 36).

Frederick Douglass's transformation from MLK-like to Malcolm-like abolitionist
A Notebook on Frederick Douglass

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Digital turn in Slavery studies

If you're talking public digital humanities  or technology projects with students in African American Studies, it's worth showing them Slate's "The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes" and at the same time introducing them to Britt Rusert's "New World: The Impact of Digitization on the Study of Slavery." Slate's visualization documents 20,527 voyages of ships transporting millions of slaves from Africa to America from 1545 to 1860. Rusert's article places the "digital turn" in studies of slavery into context, and she also highlights the limitations of the Slate video.

I was discussing Slate's and Rusert's pieces with students in the African American Literatures and Cultures Institute, a summer program that exposes students to a variety of topics in Black Studies. We began with a discussion of slavery, and the Slate visualization presents the subject in a tech-savvy way while Rusert's piece simultaneously gives students reasons to "think more carefully about how digitization transforms slavery’s status as a particular— even peculiar—object of knowledge within and beyond literary studies."

What does it mean, I wonder, that students and general viewers are more likely to encounter the Slate video as opposed to an article like Rusert's? Also, what lessons can we take, I asked the students, from the collaborative efforts among historians, librarians, and digital specialists who produced the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which formed the basis for the Slate visualization? In other words, what are the processes and consequences of collaboration among humanities scholars and digital or tech specialists?

A Notebook on African American Literatures and Cultures Institute

Monday, June 4, 2018

Eve L. Ewing, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Black Studies, and creativity

For the month of June, I'm working with a group of undergraduates in a summer program, the African American Literatures and Cultures Institute, that assists them with preparing for and thinking about graduate study. We'll cover a range of Black Studies readings, including Eve L. Ewing's Electric Arches and Ta-Nehisi Coates's Black Panther. A volume of poetry and comic book might seem like an odd pairing, but not really, given some of Ewing's and Coates's intersections on creativity.

I'm excited to see how students respond to works by both writers, especially as we think about them in the context of general readings on Black Studies. Check out syllabi in the field, and you'll see works related to history, sociology, and canonical literature. Less often do you see contemporary poetry and comic books.

In the introduction to her book, Ewing recalls playing outside during her childhood:
"As I rode my bike I would narrate, in my head, all of my adventures. In my head I was shooting arrows, exploring dungeons, solving mysteries. In this way, my block became the backdrop of infinite possibility, even if the cracked cement and the brick wall facing our window and the gangs seemed to constrain that possibility."
Her reflections on childhood imagining reminded me of passages from Coates's The Beautiful Struggle and some of his blog entries. He's written about his vivid mental wandering while growing up in a tough Baltimore neighborhood.

Hey, but look at them now. Ewing has this really exciting volume of poetry, with parts of poems appearing as if handwritten. Coates has been writing Black Panther for Marvel. What they're doing counts as Black Studies? Yes. Better question: what happens when we think of the kind of compositions that they've done as Black Studies work?  I'll keep you posted, as we read, think through, and respond?

A Notebook on Ta-Nehisi Coates
A Notebook on African American Literatures and Cultures Institute