Black Secret Technology
(The Whitey On The Moon Dub)
"I can't pay no doctor bills but Whitey's on the moon." Earlier this year, while Mark Shuttleworth orbited the earth at a dazzling 66 sunrises a day in a piece of space junk called Soyuz, an email did the rounds of left-leaning South Africans, and ended up in my inbox one day. The message reproduced some complaints from a poem by Gil-Scott Heron:
The man just upped my rent last night cuz Whitey's on the moon
No hot water, no toilets, no lights but Whitey's on the moon.
I wonder why he's uppin me. Cuz Whitey's on the moon?
I was already givin' him fifty a week but now Whitey's on the moon.
Thirty years after Gil Scott Heron chanted his dissatisfaction with the US cold war space programme, race relations have changed, perhaps not entirely but significantly, in the US and at the tip of this continent. Other things have changed too.
Taxes takin' my whole damn check
The junkies makin' me a nervous wreck
The price of food is goin' up,
And as if all that shit wasn't enough.
Power dynamics between the state and the corporate world have shifted too. Shuttleworth's mission indicates how natural it has become for commerce to bankroll public dreams. A remarkable first for Africa; yet so much marketing will-power was spent in order to transform the once private school headboy, who now lives in London, into an afronaut.
There is a politics here, a politics of whether billionaire business people now have the right stuff. There is a politics that comes with the giddy freedom of a capitalism that allows people like Shuttleworth to shuck institutional success for garage-industry stardom. It is a politics that you might stand on either side of, but it is a politics of the imagination nonetheless.
I remember a time when the imagination did not seem so blatantly political. I remember staring, as a child, at Buzz Aldrin, who gazed contently from a picture on my brother's wall. Dreams at that age didn't have to be balanced, in the way an adult balances a cheque book. Was all that money I made last year for Whitey on the moon? Now we live in a postmodern world, a silent, incomprehensible world in which a Cape Town child flies nearly to the moon, while poor millions watch from under zinc roofs freezing in the winter moonlight. Balancing budgets with dreams has become so hard, now that the divide is no longer just economic and racial, but also pharmaceutical, genetic, digital.
I went to the same elite private school as Mark Shuttleworth, and while there I buried myself in books, science fiction and fantasy especially. Mostly I tried not to think about race. The ordinariness of the race of the three astronauts gazing from my brother's wall. My more indeterminate race. Instead I believed in the haunting landscapes and distant moons of the pulp science fiction and comics I read. The ships landed long ago: they already laid waste whole societies, abducted and genetically altered swathes of citizenry, imposed without surcease their values. Whenever I traveled the schizophrenic distance between the leafy suburbs of my school and the arid landscapes of coloured ghettoes, I superimposed, translated, those fictive vistas.
I remember hot summer afternoons sitting in the backseat of my mother's old Renault, my head buried in a comic book. Back then Marvel and DC were the only choices, so my brother and I carefully staked out our choices; I went for DC's Warlord and Star Trek, my brother for Marvel's Atari Force and X-Men. I can still almost lose myself remembering that sense of total immersion; oblivious to the radio and my mother's conversation, drowning in parallel universes.
Science fiction seeps into a child's imagination by an extension of belief rather than by a suspension of disbelief. The things contained in imaginary tales felt more true than not, perhaps in some alternate, somehow better dimension. Nowadays the literary intelligentsia assert the same thing, though in a more mundane way. They recognise that sf mirrors the contemporary world, not the future world.
Sf is 'paraliterature' -- despite the sneers of cognoscenti, it is the literature that is actually read. Serious writers call it, enviously, the 'golden ghetto' of literature; pulp fiction. It sells; moreover, it is read. Given the size and dedication of the sf readership, it is hard to deny that it doesn't tell fans something about their world, that it doesn't feed into some structure of feeling.
The recurring scenarios that dominate sf give a clue: themes like alien-ness, colonisation and technology as a disciplinary epistemology indicate that sf reflects the American racial psyche. Sf mirrors the silent history of the New World, and the alienation of the black populations forcibly taken there. They inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done to them; and technology, be it branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, or tasers, is too often brought to bear on black bodies.
The sf writing community is largely white; yet more and more black novelists are becoming attracted to the genre as they take cognisance of its deep correspondences with contemporary history. Samuel Delany, probably the most prominent of a handful of black sf writers, writes sf as an allegory of cultural difference, imagining futures in which difference becomes the site of a metaphysical struggle -- much as some imagine it today. Like all writers, his imaginative works derive from personal experience. Delany grew up in Harlem, taking a bus from his home above 110th street to a well-off white school below 110th street where he was one of the only black kids. Each time he took that bus he embarked on what he called "a journey of near ballistic violence through an absolute social barrier".
Science fiction is important in more ways than as a simple allegory for conscious history. It also mirrors a psychological, subconscious history. One of the enduring, almost foundational, themes of science fiction is colonisation, whether colonisation of the earth by others, colonisation of other planets by humans, or more metaphorical forms of colonisation. Colonisation often takes a very visceral form in sf, portrayed by alien forms inhabiting and erupting from human bodies. Think then of the equally visceral form that colonisation took in the Belgian Congo: look no further to understand the power of the disrupted human physiology as signifier.
I recently discovered a project by conceptual artist Keith Obadike that does address this intersection of slave narrative and postmodern sf narrative more explicitly:
This project juxtaposes still images from director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Dan O'Bannon's 1979 film Alien with text from Olaudah Equiano's 1789 autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. I envision Boladji Badejo (the Nigerian art student and actor who played the alien) as a nexus between Dan O'Bannon's saga (influenced by Joseph Conrad) and Equiano's real life epic. As others have remarked, black Americans have literally lived in an alien(-n)ation for hundreds of years. The viscerality of their abduction is equalled only by the ephemerality of the bonds which the disciplinary state has since imposed on them. The sound source for this project is a recording of ocean waves breaking against the Elmina slave castle in Ghana.
* * * * *
At an appropriate age I abandoned pulp fiction and comics (except for indulging in the counterculture frisson of the occasional Love and Rockets), and by the time I reached high school my reading tastes had changed altogether to echo the music in my head. My soundtrack traced a weird course between the slacker rock psychedelia of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine and the sci-fi funk of Public Enemy and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. The authors who could keep up with my sonic imagination were Phillip K. Dick, JG Ballard and William Burroughs. Somehow, through these writers, the crass generic of sf intertextuality was transmuted into the avant-garde, my first taste of post-somethingism. 'Post-' whatever was an indeterminate term anyway: these were outsiders in an outsider genre, strangers in the strange world they had staked out as home.
William Gibson and cyberpunk came shortly afterwards; afterwards, despite being more pulp and less literary than what I was already reading. There was anyway something urgent about reading Gibson in the early-90s. I mean the world of 1999 looks a hell of a lot more like a William Gibson novel than it does like an Arthur Clark novel. It's that simple. By then the mood of popular culture was all about jacking into the world of Mondo 2000 and the fledgling rave/ambient/cyberculture scene. Gibson was hardly science fiction anymore. And why? Because he was looking at things that Clark wasn't looking at. Clark was spending all his time with Werner Von Braun, and Gibson was spending all his time listening to Velvet Underground albums and haunting junk stores in Vancouver.
But by the end of high school I had stopped reading anything even vaguely classifiable as science fiction. I had practically stopped reading altogether. Unsatisfied with the ability of writing to evoke the rapid psychedelia of life at the turn of the millennium, my inner eye was instead trained on the universes evoked by the music of Goldie, 4Hero, Aphex Twin, Carl Craig, Ken Ishii and the countless, nameless purveyors of the future of music.
In retrospect, the arc that my tastes traced, from pulp sf to the vanguard of electronic dance, seems to possess some internal logic. This is where black science fiction has hidden itself instead: on vinyl. Some critics wonder why there are not many black sf writers, given the subtexts of even the most predictable genre sf. Few of these debates operate at the interface of science and aesthetics which is the required starting point of contemporary black cultural expression and the digital technology of its social dissemination and reproduction. To talk about black sf, it might be better to abandon the literary and look at what cultural theorist Kodwo Eshun has called 'sonic fictions'; the gamut of black futurist sounds which have charted the course of pre- and post-rave electronica.
Sf in black music goes beyond film references, although there are plenty of those: from Canibus announcing that he's "liquid aluminum like the T2", to the influence of movies like Predator and its sequel through the soundbytes included in jungle classics (such as the famous "fucking voodoo magic" clip).
Hip-hop has always constructed a fantasy world for its fans, both visually and sonically. The album cover for Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet was a literal interpretation of the title, showing the Earth eclipsed by what could pass for a Death Star inscribed with PE's sniper target insignia. More recently, Kool Keith took the sf fantasy persona to self-conscious absurdity with his Dr Octagon alter ego: a mad gynaecologist who, like Sun Ra, is from Saturn, but bumps and grinds like 2 Live Crew from the year 3000. Hip-hop infiltrates the sf intertext with these distorted pulp references and ganja-induced delusions, making a sonic architecture with the surrealism of Nintendo.
Science fiction in black music is not limited to camp hip-hop imagery. There is music which takes this fetish seriously, either because of its supposed technological advancement or its aesthetic break with past musical concepts. A self-conscious futurism is immediately apparent in the techniques and sensibilities of the black electronic music of the last two decades. Whether it's the future breakbeat of 4Hero's Parallel Universe album or the warm analogue groove of Stacy Pullen's otherworldly spiritual techno, or even Afrika Bambaata's Planet Rock and M/A/R/S/S's Pump Up The Volume, avant-garde black diaspora music in the last two decades has been propelled by a sense that it has returned to earth carrying a vision of the future.
This momentum is not novel to the hip-hop and electronica coming out of New York, Detroit, Chicago and London since the early 80s. Futurism was alive and well in the persona of free jazz pioneer Sun Ra, who allegedly hailed from Saturn, and whose Arkestra was a conductor for intergalactic communications. Perhaps Alabama was a stranger place than Saturn in 1914. The sense of futurism can be traced in bebop as well. John Coltrane tried to bring the cosmos back with him through his music, after taking LSD. Then there's George Clinton's science fiction persona, and his famed show with Parliament when he caused an alien mothership to land on stage.
Probably around the same time that I started taking notice of the picture of Buzz Aldrin on my brother's bedroom wall, Herbie Hancock had come careening out of bebop's sophisticated circles into pop music consciousness, wearing bug-eyed goggles and bearing an album called Future Shock. It is now de rigeur to announce horror at the schlock culture of the 80s, but who could forget Hancock's "Rockit", or the delirious sf psychedelia of M/A/R/S/S's turntable cutups? The then-new pyrotechnics of turntablism and DJ-driven sound collage mirrored the space-time disruptions that wildstyle grafitti was inflicting on two-dimensional urban surfaces across the world.
Roland had invented its TR-808 drum synth in 1979, but it came into its own in the mid-80s after inner city b-boys reprogrammed the machine to deliver the robotic squelch of electro. I remember how my brother would spend hours mimicking the way dancers stiffened their torsos to do elementary moves like the robot and the moonwalk. Popular dance has never again captured so well the relationship between the anxieties of modern technology and the paranoid tics and jerks of funk -- except perhaps for the dance moves that accompanied black London's underground sound of the nineties: jungle.
* * * * *
I discovered techno and jungle at about the same time I started picking out sides by Abdullah Ibrahim and Charlie Mingus. It was tempting then, as it still is now, to make analogies between the progressions of a jazz history I was only beginning to uncover, and the radical innovations of the black experimental fringe unfolding before me. But there is a blindness in narratives of continuity and progress. New music requires new concepts.
As cultural theorist Kodwo Eshun has noted, the new concepts are there waiting for us; on the album sleeves and in track titles. A Guy Called Gerald's seminal 1996 futurist jungle album was called Black Secret Technology; in a similar vein, drum 'n bass and hip-hop from the last decade abounds with metaphors drawn from science and engineering. After the release of his classic debut album Timeless, drum 'n bass producer Goldie told Muzik magazine that the album was "like a Rolex. Beautiful surface, but the mechanism is a mindfuck. The loops, they've been sculpted, they're in 4D".
'Breakbeat science' seems the most appropriate way to denote the time-defying mechanics of jungle's rhythm programming. Thinking about music in terms of science or technology immediately brings to mind Brian Eno's accusation: "Do you know what I hate about computers? There's not enough Africa in them". But what then is the link between the futures envisioned by new African diaspora music, and the real world presence of technology? It is problematic to imagine Africa's rhythmical technology as being in opposition to the west's digital technology, a problem which Eno blithely sidesteps. Yet if anything, the new music of the past two decades indicates that we should ignore received distinctions between white technological agency and black technological funk.
The affinity of the black diaspora for warped electronics goes back in time, finding echoes even across the middle passage. There is a connection between the futurist trends employed by black musicians and these musicians' self-portrayal as trickster figures; the trickster is an archetype that goes back to the Yoruba deities, or orisha, who accompanied their believers to the Caribbean.
Trickery is also at play in literary science fiction. William Gibson imported the orisha into his cyberspace milieu, and cultural critic Erik Davis is convinced that Philip K. Dick is best interpreted as playing trickster god over the universes his books invent. "I like to build universes that do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued..." But this is insignificant in comparison with the centrality of the trickster archetype in black futurist music.
Dub has its Mad Professor, drum 'n bass has its PM Scientists, hip-hop has its Dr Octagon, and before all of them, George Clinton reinvented himself as Dr. Funkenstein. All are inflected with the dark awe of witchcraft, more Faustian than Hawking. It's important to note that in Jamaican patois, "science" refers to obeah, the African grab-bag of herbal, ritual and occult lore popular on the island. Black secret technology is postmodern sonic alchemy, voodoo magic.
More specifically, black secret technology is taking white technology apart and not putting it back together properly. Black secret technology is finding the secret life of hi-fi equipment like the Technics SL-1200. Black secret technology is discovering the mis-uses of the Roland TB-303, a machine originally intended to help rock guitarists practice over synthesized basslines, but tweaked in order to create acid house and all its subsequent variations. Black secret technology is George Clinton setting out to find a 'psychedelics of the mixing desk'. Or Lee Perry confessing that his studio had become a "pulsating, unpredictable brain". "It was like a space craft. You could hear space in the tracks."
Black secret technology is also the metamorphosis from re-cording as re-presentation to re-cording as re-combinance. Thanks to pioneers like dub pioneer Lee Perry and Kool DJ Herc, who invented hip-hop turntablism in late seventies South Bronx, the record has become a technology of remixology, not reproduction. The severing of funk's engine to form the breakbeat, the dissolution of the singer/songwriter in dub's underwater echo-room, the deconstruction of the author by remix: all imply a rootlessness, a restlessness that seem to be echoes of some common subtext of black diaspora experience.
One of dub's legacies was 'versioning', a prototype of the modern day remix. A version was a rhythm track stripped of vocals, which could then be re-used over and over again, with different vocalists, or mixed real-time by Kingston sound systems, creating networks of 'songs'. The versions of early seventies Jamaican dub called the song construct into question in the same way that the radical remixology of contemporary dance music does now.
There is something of a paradox in dub's naive postmodernity, in the way its echoing voices of indeterminable origin slip in and out of the mix. While reggae stresses the motherland connection with lyrics calling for repatriation of Africa's diaspora children and a strong call for the recognition of roots, the 'versions' of dub technology stress the irretrievability of the original mix. If reggae is Africa in the New World, dub is Africa on the moon. The dubbed-up listener discovers that home is always already lost to a vanishing horizon.
Black secret technology is the manifestation of what William Gibson famously predicted: the street finds its own use for things. Black secret technology is in this sense not just machinery with the lid off, but whole forms of social organisation; for example, the micro-capitalist network of pirate stations, dub-plate manufacturers and illegal raves, interconnected by pagers and mobile phones, that made up the UK's jungle economy in the mid-90s.
Fucking voodoo magic. If Predator was Joseph Conrad for the millennial count-down, then jungle techno is post-colonialism achieved meltdown. "Do you know what I hate about computers?" Brian Eno's complaint that computers don't have enough funk in them is already false. "There's not enough Africa in them." It's simply not true. Africa's trans-Atlantic diaspora has already infiltrated the mainframe.
* * * * *
After the ghostly psychedelia of dub, but before the kinetic syncopation of breakbeat, there was Detroit techno. There are many origins, claimed and unclaimed, of electronica as it exists today, but Detroit techno is most often championed as the true source. Unlike the facile Euro-beat that later got the popular moniker 'techno', the Detroit techno of the 80s and 90s was a sophisticated, emotional update on electro. With its subliminal bass, complex drum patterns and moody analogue synths, it gave the first taste of the renegade electronics that would become the musical revolution of the late nineties.
Though I didn't know it at the time, Detroit techno and directly influenced sub-genres of ambient music were amongst the first sounds of revolution that got me hooked on electronica. I've only now begun to put the pieces together: on the one hand the deep resonance I felt when I first heard the music in the early-90s on static-drenched recordings of US college radio broadcasts, and on the other hand the sociological phenomenon from which the Detroit scene emerged.
Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, the three DJs responsible for inventing Detroit techno in the early 80s, came from middle-class backgrounds, their parents having risen in the ranks at the Ford and General Motors plants that were Detroit's economic engine. Like Samuel Delany, the three friends were amongst a very small group of black kids at an affluent white school, and found themselves thrown between two different worlds with no home ground.
Their music was also rooted in the experience of a particular social landscape. Detroit is the city of Robocop. The shining star of America's industrial might becomes a racialised wasteland as the motor industry took a downturn and private segregation followed deepening inequalities. Like a true cyberpunk landscape, Motor City was entropy realised; a place that has been called 'America's first Third World city'. This transition was reflected in the machine code laments generated by the young techno scene.
But Detroit techno has stranger musical roots. Carl Craig, one of the best of the second wave of Detroit producers, spent his youth listening to the gothic art-rock of Bauhaus and The Smiths. Imagining this reminds me of being in high school, sneaking into clubs. For some reason I was drawn not to Cape Town's legendary hip-hop venue The Base, but to the downtown art-rock club scene, and I found it full of coloured counter-cliche twenty-somethings, with not a hip-hop affiliation in sight.
Atkins, May and Saunderson similarly took their influences not only from Parliament-Funkadelic but from the effete pop of European New Wave bands, and especially the cold automaton-music of seminal German group Kraftwerk. They listened to this music, even adopting the accents, because the European music sounded as alien as they felt in the industrial heartland of the USA.
Like Delany, the Detroit innovators found themselves in a strange warp between two worlds; between a world of aspiration and a world from which they were twice excluded, stuck between their double consciousness.
* * * * *
Listening back to some of this music, now that so much of electronica seems to have run its course, it is still easy to see that its ambient textures and breaks with song structure were not merely a panacea for pre-millennial tension. Marshall McLuhan's predictions have come true: we now live in acoustic space, submerged in an amniotic mediasphere that pays no heed to the linearities of the printed word. Producers of electronica don't so much compose music as design aural architecture.
This architecture extends inwards into an architecture of personality. The music is immersive; it offers a way of life which makes sense of the world in a subtly but significantly different way. Even here at one end of the continent, the new music of black Britain and black America echoes its relevance beyond the cache of London/New York cool. With the recombinance generated by sampling and remixing, the music moulds an aesthetic hybridity, a soundtrack for the Information Age cosmopolitan.
Yet it seems that futurism is not as much a force in music from the continent as it is in diaspora music. Why? Futurism, for one, is not necessarily synonymous with cutting edge. Ray Lema, like Jimi Hendrix, was accused of playing music for white audiences when his ideas became too adventurous. But even on his album Medecine, a complex but catchy blend of electro and soukous recorded with foward thinking musicians like Tony Allen, this progressive sensibility doesn't engage the same futurist aesthetic as the western electronic music he no doubt took inspiration from.
On the other hand, Manu Dibango's Electric Africa, with it's psychedelic computer circuitry on the cover sleeve and Rockit-esque production by king future-soundmaster Bill Laswell, does sound like an attempt to leave contemporary space-time. "Born of two antagonistic ethnic groups in Cameroon, where custom is dictated by the father's origin, I have never been able to identify completely with either of my parents. Thus I have felt pushed towards others as I made my own path." Dibango was sent to Saint-Calais at the age of 15, where he was the first black person the natives had ever seen. He came back from fame in Paris to find that his records were not being played on Douala's dancefloors. Dibango's futurism seems to echo his sense of displacement.
Futurism in black music has been about addressing an experience which is alienated, uprooted, decentered, but positive; it is a waking to the irretrievability of home. This ethos is embraced by esoteric beat-heads like DJ-producer DJ Spooky, whose mindbending 'illbient' soundtracks are a far cry from the 'real'ness of the hip-hop from which he claims lineage. Spooky, aka cultural theorist Paul D. Miller, is black and middle class, and asserts his hybridity as an aesthetic stance. His 'illbient' philosophies remind me of the undergound hip-hop parties a friend of mine used to co-promote while he was a particularly ghetto-unfabulous art student. The parties were called Geto3000, and subtitled 'Keeping it Surreal', an unashamed paean to faux-ghetto irony, cheeky riposte to the centering narrative of ghetto 'realness'.
"I pass through so many different scenes, each with their different uniforms and dialects," murmers Spooky. "One night I'll be at a dub party, the next in an academic environment. I think people need to be comfortable with difference. Hip-hop isn't; it says 'you gotta be down with us,' be like us."
I've never experienced the loss of some aggrandising purity of experience as a real loss. Hybrid experiences and immersive cultures don't trace ownership or home, but they do provide more room for the imagination to breathe. "I pass through so many different scenes, each with their different uniforms and dialects," repeats Spooky, like a mantra. When Mark Shuttleworth was orbiting earth at a speed of 66 sunsets a day, I would often imagine him pinpointing home on the blue globe turning below. This image in my head now reminds me of an insight that is implicit in black diaspora music's futurist agenda. Finding home reveals a politics of the imagination.
The best parts of this essay are the fruits of helpful suggestions by Lindsay Jonker and Ntone Edjabe; the rest is entirely my own.
The following sources have been sampled and dubbed into the text:
Erik Davis "Philip K. Dick's Divine Interference" techgnosis.com
Erik Davis "Roots and Wires. Polyrhythmic cyberspace and the black electronic" techgnosis.com
Mark Dery Flame Wars (1995)
Manu Dibango Electric Africa liner notes (1985, 1998)
Kodwo Eshun "Motion Capture" (CCRU)
Paul Gilroy The Black Atlantic: modernity and double consciousness (1993)
Gil-Scott Heron, "Whitey on the Moon" (1972)
Kevin Kelly vs Brian Eno "Gossip is Philosophy" Wired 3.05 (May 1995)
Paul D. Miller vs Bruce Sterling "Future Tense" djspooky.com
Keith Obadike, project description for Untitled (the interesting narrative) (2000)
Simon Reynolds vs DJ Spooky Generation Ecstacy (1999)
Mark Sinker "Loving the Alien" The Wire 96 (February 1992)
David Toop vs. Lee Perry Ocean of Sound (1995)
Julian Jonker lives, writes and listens to music in Cape Town. He writes about music and cultural identity, and has published in South African periodicals. He writes a regular column about culture in Cape Town for afribeat.com. He also runs the Liberation Chabalala production house and is a DJ with the Fong Kong Bantu Sound System.
"Black Street Technology (The Whitey on the Moon Dub)" was originally published in the second volume of the South African print journal Chimurenga. It is published with the permission of its editors.
See also the CTHEORY interview with Ntone Edjabe, _Chimurenga_, Editor-in-chief. (article a110)