Cannibalism and Christianity
Well that's a suitably incendiary title for a post. But it's not what you think. Not by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, to tell the story and examine these ideas we have to rewind history back to before house even existed. We need to go all the way back to the mid-70s in New York City when we see the emergence of three of the most important genres in popular music: punk, disco, and our focus in this post, hip hop.
According to Prendergrasts essential "The Ambient Century" we can regard Musique Concrete as the fore-bearer of hip-hop. When Schaffer and Henry first created tape loops of ambient recordings of railway platforms, when Tenney took a pair of scissors to an Elvis Presley recording, when Stockhausen mangled prophetic comments regarding weather, all the rules changed. Hip hop was born. It would take another four decades to flourish but an idea had been created: an idea that predated concrete through centuries or art history. Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning reassembled existing items to create a new whole, in a new context (Stern, 2006).
However the dynamic phase shift occurred with the advent of the digital sampler. Warner (1996) states the “modus operandi of the sampler is directly related to the tape manipulations of musique concrete”. The ability to take pieces of pre-existing audio and subvert that audio to create something new is the very essence of hip hop. “It is a political act, a way of crossing the system” (Vaidhyanathan, 2001). This technological change allowed hip hop to create purely self-referential material, and enabled the key technique underlying the entire ideology of hip hop: collage. Scholars agree that collage is integral to hip hop music, the driving force behind the aesthetic (cf. Vaidhyanathan, 2001. Warner, 1996. Marshall, 2006. Demers, 2003).
In a recent conversation with Sarah Little (exploring UK hip hop as a lens through which we can view cultural democracy and engagement) I brought up the idea of hip hop as a form of ancestor worship, and Sarah fired back with the concept of sampling as a form of teaching. One could argue these two aren't in anyway separate, indeed they may present complimentary approaches to sampling material, making it's reference overt as an act of veneration and as a means to minister about the musical heritage of the field.
However, often the reasons underpinning the use of collage are much less definite. It's possible to argue that it could be an attempt at musical cannibalism; devouring ones vanquished enemies to absorb their physical and spiritual power. Others see it as a more visceral connection to the roots of the diasporic community, best summed up by Vaidhyanathan (2001) who states sampling is “an archival project and an art form unto itself. Hip-hop is ancestor worship”. In DJ Spooky's Sound Unbound, Scanner aka Robin Rimbaud (2008) reinforces this view believing that it is hip-hop’s objective to “find the ghosts, the lost narratives, the stories...” of a nation removed from its history.
Finally others reference the concept that new meaning can be constructed from older constituent parts removed from their original context (Warner, 1996. Marshall, 2006). This view, while presenting differing ideas as to the use and establishment of new musical forms, also seems to encourage a compromise and combination of the previously discussed sentiments (Stern, 2006). It would be feasible that by altering the context of a piece of music by sampling it an artist could construct new meaning by simultaneously venerating and cannibalising their sonic ancestry; sustaining themselves on the lifeblood of their musical lineage (what Vaidhyanathan, 2001 called “repositories of social memory”) while also paying homage and shifting the perceived meaning of a piece of audio.
These ideas are perhaps best summed up in Nate Harrison's now legendary 2004 discussion of the Amen Break. Whilst he doesn't refer to each of the possible motivations directly, the piece touches on all areas of sampling with respect to one particular musical material. If you've got some extra time it's also worth watching "Everything Is A Remix Part. 1" by Kirby Ferguson.
Where does this leave house music? I bring up sampling as a practice to perhaps explain the inclusion of musicological elements that are inherently Christian in aesthetic. When we hear preachers sampled and reworked, or biblical texts twisted to have new meaning, this could be viewed as sampling in so much as it refers to the ideas presented above. When Chuck Roberts spoke the phrase "In the beginning there was Jack..." it represents all of the possible motivations discussed above: collage, ancestor worship, teaching, cannibalism, and recontextualisation.
— collage (mashing up, creating sound textures inspired from multiple sources)
— ancestor worship (directly referencing the spiritual leaders of local churches in which many vocalists grew up)
— teaching (the biblical tale tells the story of house coming from a groove)
— cannibalism (mimicking the preachers stylised rhetoric to reference church and therefore imbuing/stealing the power of a church and casting it over the track and audience)
— recontextualisation (creating a new kind of worship in a new setting with new sonic components)
While some pieces are clearly using all these tools, or some combination of them, there is a nebulous space between these motivations, and another possible reason that has so far caused me immeasurable trouble; the "satirical" approach. Malcolm Gladwell covers this incredibly well in his latest Revisionist History podcast (it's well worth a listen). And as yet whether some of the pieces I've been using as the main canonical body of my research are coming from a satirical perspective is something unknown. Without understanding directly the intentions of the performer it becomes very difficult to ascertain the appropriate contextualised view of the material.
Whilst the above list of possible explanations offers some solace when discussing the connection between house and religious symbolism, it doesn't completely explain everything. Are there pieces that satirise Christianity? Probably. Are there pieces that satirise the connection between house and Christianity? Most definitely! But identifying that intention (as it always seems to come back to) becomes a nearly impossible task.
Finally: a thank you needs to go to Jack McKay Fletcher at Cognovo @ Plymouth. He let me rant at him last week about all this stuff and threw up some really interesting questions.