What In The World Is “Global Ghettotech”: Radical Riddims or Neo-Exotica?
column originally published in Vague Terrain (defunct), Toronto, 2010
It may be hard to remember now, but in a previous geologic era when CD supermarkets still dotted the North American continent, they customarily featured at least one waterfall rack of discs labeled as “world music”: it was always a bit of a puzzling redundancy to begin with (where was music supposed to come from other than the world?), but essentially referred to any shade of indigenous and organic sound impervious to the workings of the post-industrial economies. Then, amid the hipster resurgence of the mid 1990s, the ordering logic of these sections tended to contradict this organicist aesthetic and to more closely reflect the tastes of that small, but cash-flush segment of society: the lounge-friendly percolations of Brazilian tropicalia, wispy French chansons and the like made significant inroads, along with the most polished and cosmopolitan pop of just about ‘anywhere but here.’ Nonetheless, it’s the ‘people close to the earth’ world musical model that still lives on at the impulse buy CD counters of your local Starbucks, but this is rapidly being supplanted by a leaner, hungrier, and more explicitly electrified sound. Its rhythmic foundations differ wildly from place to place, as do its melodic content, tonal complexity, and vocal phrasing, but a few characteristics seem to distinguish the newer “world music” on a global scale. Lyrical and graphical content eschews rural folk traditions and pastoral reflection for engagement (sometimes critical, sometimes not) with the illicit extremes of hyper-urban reality. It doesn’t shy away from using English and French patois in the place of (or alongside) the local tongue, or –more commonly- from making knowing references to Western popular culture. From a technical standpoint, it couldn’t be made without studio manipulation and the automated, sequenced processes of electronic equipment. Steve ‘Kode9’ Goodman, a dubstep producer, label owner, and academic writer, is one of a few like-minded individuals who has compressed all these tendencies together into an overflowing container emblazoned with the words “global ghettotech,” noting how the aggregate of new styles from South African kwaito to Rio’s funk carioca all share the reality of being a “radically synthetic counter to ‘world music.’” 1
One of the reasons for this stylistic shift should be evident to anyone that has tracked the developmental progress of the 3rd world: its new mega-cities are, more and more, resembling cyberpunk dystopias in the way that the high-tech menace of the security industry coexists with the improvisational, ramshackle living environments of these cities’ teeming poor, with little transitional zoning between the two worlds. São Paulo stands out as a striking example of this trend: here is a metropolis whose downtown area hosts no less than 250 heliports, used by the city’s richer inhabitants “to insulate themselves from the dangers of mingling with ordinary people […] looking around the skyline of the city, one really does feel as if one is in a futuristic megalopolis of the kind pictured in films such as Blade Runner or The Fifth Element, with ordinary people swarming through the dangerous streets down below, whilst the rich float around on a higher level, up in the air.”2
To be sure, you no longer need to look to Tokyo or Hong Kong for a visualization of cyberpunk’s classic themes of social control and technological piracy / subterfuge. This is not, however, the clean and cutesy “geisha-with-a-cell phone” exotica so beloved of nth-generation cyberpunk fans, but one where cellular phones are used to coordinate spectacular riots across the network of São Paulo prisons. Informal employment is these regions is the rule rather than the exception, and thus improvisational tech practices like traquitana (a local form of recycling that, among other things, sees slum dwellers turning cast-off lamps into TV antennae) often provide a ‘ghetto tech’ of the plastic arts to complement the music reverberating through the sprawling habitats of corrugated metal.It would be unusual if music coming out of such environments didn’t pulsate with extreme urgency and with a desire for immediate gratification in the face of constant, gripping uncertainty. Goodman insists, though, that rather than being cowed by fear, slum populations do the only other thing they can with it- producing a “…sonic ecology of dread: fear activated deliberately to be transduced and enjoyed in a musical context.”3
At the same time, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that certain styles falling under Goodman’s definition of this music owe their propagation to organizations that make modern slum life such a violent undertaking. In São Paulo, for example, the massively popular baile funk parties are often funded by cartels like the Comando Vermelho and the PCC [‘First Command of the Capital’] as part of their own ongoing P.R. campaign. The most hardcore fringe of the funk carioca movement –known locally as proibidão, ‘prohibited’– features MCs like Renatinho and Alemão openly paying tribute to the organizations’ leaders, generally raising their stock in the impoverished favelas while slinging verbal lead at the military police and other natural enemies. Proibidão tracks, in terms of production technique, are representative of much of Goodman’s global ghettotech, in the sense that they can hold their own with the most digitally scrubbed Euro-dance platters. The dominant vocals, for example, take advantage of dramatic filter sweeps, chopping / panning effects and even the dreaded AutoTune effect so widely employed by established electronic dance music styles. Unsurprisingly, samples of overhead helicopters and automatic weapon fire often punctuate the mix.
The starring role of a criminal underground in making this music available provides a moral quandary for its more ‘conscious’ consumers, as it did with American gangsta rap. However, making music in the world’s peripheral communities is not just a matter of downloading some freeware and getting to work: variables such as the shaky supply of electricity and potable water, equally unreliable access to reliable transportation, and the constant extraneous noise of the slums all conspire to make this process significantly more difficult. Not to belittle its very real social problems, but the South London where dubstep holds court can hardly be equated with the ultra-congested slums of Lagos or Cite-Soleil (in Port au Prince, Haiti)- while the need for formal rehearsal space may have been alleviated by the increasing compactness of music equipment, the sheer compression of human bodies into a slum like Cite-Soleil makes the clearing out of any space a challenge, let alone one where high-tech music can be adequately recorded and performed. This is where groups like the PCC can pick up the slack, offering both the means of recording and performing in exchange for helping to form their ‘cultural base’.
Now then, there is the question of whether organizations like the PCC would have any clout whatsoever if not for the draconian drug laws (primarily in the U.S.), and the subsequent international overreach of the D.E.A., that help sustain the underground economy. Really, we can spend all day pitying the poor souls who have to rely on drug gangs to provide them with their means of entertainment, but it’s unwise to do so without acknowledging 1st-world complicity in creating their current state of affairs. A music critic no less heavily cited than Simon Reynolds falls into this trap, and offers a prime example of global ghettotech’s ability to draw out colonialist attitudes thinly veiled by (borrowing Goodman’s term) “sono-political correctness.” In a puzzling dual adoration and condemnation of British ghettotech ambassador M.I.A., Reynolds is “turned off” by her live show’s “stencil-sprayed projection imagery of grenades, tanks, and so forth,”4 but nonetheless firmly under the spell of her “exotic” physical attractiveness. While Reynolds may be justified in raising an eyebrow over the singer’s playing up of tenuous connections to Sri Lankan rebel royalty, Reynolds also suspects M.I.A.’s use of the heroic ‘3rd world vs. 1st world struggle’ as being insincere, claiming that the Sri Lankan Civil War of the past 30 years was a purely ethnic conflict along the lines of the Rwandan genocide.
All that aside, though, there is something awkward and inconsistent about championing universal access to technology, further championing indigenous populations’ ability to “make it their own,” and then standing aghast when they “make it their own” in a way that deviates from the ‘champion’s’ wishes. Taking a somewhat more nuanced approach is ghettotech booster DJ Rupture, saying of the inflammatory ghettotech presentation that
…if you want to talk politics, follow the money. If you want to talk politics in music, follow the distribution- see who benefits from what. Imagine a ’socially-conscious’ funk carioca hit…owned by a Westerner who profits from it while the artist gets underpaid. The song appears to be good & politically just, but it is simply an extension of an old colonial relationship. So examining lyrics won’t answer any questions of power.5
As important as the question of this music’s political allegiances, though, is the degree to which its creators accept the term: is “global ghettotech” a term that’s only going to have currency in those places where it isn’t made? Admittedly, the term suffers from the samwe over-simplification as the original “world music.” For one, the global ghettotech map of the ghetto-ized globe is a little incomplete. Extremely populous mainland China is conspicuously absent, owing perhaps to poor documentation of a party / dance infrastructure at which its own local strain of bass culture can be observed- unless we count phenomena like the hotel-sized karaoke ‘clubs’ of cities like Shenzhen. Meanwhile, by Mike Davis’ own admission in Planet of Slums, “the fastest-growing slums are in the Russian Federation (especially ex-‘socialist company towns’ dependent on a single, now-closed industry) and the former Soviet republics”6. The lucrative black market weapons trade in these post-Soviet territories also, in an odd way, waters the global ghettotech tree, providing musical sponsors like the PCC / Comando Vermelho axis with potent arsenals of large-caliber arms, even anti-aircraft weapons. Electronic dance culture took an unexpected and largely ignored detour into the Balkans - another region thrown into socio-economic chaos upon the Soviet collapse - in the 1990s. Here, again, it partially owed its propagation to criminal elements: Serbia’s notorious paramilitary leader Željko ‘Arkan’ Ražnatović almost certainly helped fund Belgrade’s nightclubs with the profits reaped from his war profiteering, and his marriage to Serbian pop mega-star Ceca is now the stuff of local legend. The gauche, unstylish qualities of period Serbian dance music (‘Turbo Folk’) didn’t make it any less modern, and it was no less prone to risky re-appropriation than dance styles further West on the continent (one Turbo smash, Ivan Gavrilovic’s sports car anthem “200 na Sat”, cheerfully swipes the distinctive synth sequence from 2 Unlimited’s “No Limit.”) Balkan scholar Alexei Monroe’s assessment of Turbo Folk unintentionally lends itself to the tech-music of other music styles coming from beyond the affluent 1st world. Monroe says of Turbo Folk that its
…reprocessing of Western forms has taken to the extreme their repressive potential. As with any reprocessing operation, there are always some side effects from the hardcore residue or toxic excess. However, in this case, these side-effects - the production of a siege mentality and constant antagonism combined with militant optimism and nostalgia - are what the reprocessors actually seek to produce.7
Taken out of context, Monroe could just as easily be describing the Nigerian funk-and-fury Afro-beat of the Kuti clan, or the cyborg swagger of Kingston dancehall ‘warlord’ Bounty Killer. While still focusing on Serbia, Monroe also keenly describes how the 1st world tends to erroneously view large swathes of ghettotech as alien curiosity- not noticing how closely such music cleaves to the West’s now omnipresent ‘postmodern’ aesthetic:
This hyper-hedonistic visual overload is not something we can safely confine to ‘them,’ the perverse Balkan primitives. It is an only slightly intensified version of the sensory bombardment of the Western infosphere, which is just as prone to fuse tacky ‘retro’ images with state-of-the-art graphics. 8
Indeed, Monroe raises an interesting question as to who is more naïve: is it the 3rd world re-appropriators themselves? Or, is it the denizens of the 1st world’s entertainment economy, whose sarcastic enjoyment of, say, a Bollywood re-make of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video betrays their own incredulity towards 3rd-world resourcefulness (e.g. ‘wow, how could they have ever known about Thriller in this backwards country?’) With such naiveté already in full swing, no form of global ghettotech is totally immune from being more of a narcissistic consumer phenomenon, fueled by comic irony and constant disposable novelty, than it is a tool for encouraging radical, anarchic heterogeneity. The fact that journalists from São Pauloare now interviewing artists in New York about the phenomenon, rather than the other way around, hints at the fact that global ghettotech may be just a stentorian and hard-edged upgrade of “world music,” and one whose DJ proselytizers are sommeliers catering to a fairly exclusive audience: DJ Rupture, on the receiving end of one such interview, avers that “the exposure and interest [in global ghettotech] is overrated. ‘Global ghettotech’ club nights are a minority, it is just a few individuals in a few cities doing it.” 9
Thinkers like Steve Goodman may also be a little too restrictive in their insistence that the tech-assisted music of the peripheral world can encompass only electronic dance music, and that its assumed mortal foe, rock music, has a “fetishization of midrange frequencies” that must stand in opposition to dance sound systems’ “waves of bass […] radiat[ing] through the body of the crowd, creating a vectorial force field not just heard but felt across the collective affective sensorium.”10 I don’t think I’m being too mischievous when I say that Goodman’s politics of affect could apply just as easily to the pagan bass ceremonies of doom metallers Sunn O))) as to the lo-freq, danceable paranoia of dubstep. Modern music critics who dismiss so-called “rockists” out of hand are missing the fact that, with the obstinate global popularity of extreme heavy metal, one form of tech-aided populist music has been thriving for well nigh on decades. It has successfully weathered a storm of institutional repression and critical censure, and, like the previously mentioned forms of electronic dance music, has absorbed accusations of deliberately dumbing down the folk. Sure, the electronically amplified instruments in metal are predominantly guitars (see my earlier piece, “Lemurs Over Laptopia,” for an extension of this argument) rather than samplers and beatboxes, and the emotional tenor of the music favors catharsis through violence a little more than it encourages easy-going sensual enjoyment. Yet the visceral quality of grindcore, death metal et. Al. connected with a slum-based audience that otherwise had a distrust of ‘bourgeois’ rock and already had locally-produced styles like samba to fulfill rock’s social function as escapist entertainment (note the nearly 3,500 Brazilian metal bands listed at the Metal Archives website). Also, it is too easy to write off this culture as a mere capitulation to European style: more groups like Japan’s penultimate doom / sludge act Corrupted are solidifying international cult hero status, roaring out their lyrics in the Spanish language of the barrios and favelas with which they sympathize, and using the photographic evidence of destitute and conflict-ravaged regions in the Americas to further drive home their point. Lastly, the cassette-trading and correspondence networks that solidified punk and metal in the mega-slums are at least comparable to the intercontinental back-and-forth volleying of rhythms, samples and local ‘soundmarks’.
If the hopeless ambiguity of the term ‘global ghettotech’ is all we have to go by, then it truly is a successor to the hopelessly ambiguous World Music 1.0. Yet if we look beyond the music’s characteristic of being ‘radically synthetic,’ and see it as being radically reflective of contemporary geopolitics, then things become decidedly more interesting. From the policy decisions that allow the slum archipelago to expand at such an exponential rate, to the encouragement of the universalization of music-making technology, to the lurid overload of the lyrical content, there is little about global ghettotech that doesn’t involve real, ever-intensifying reciprocity between 1st and 3rd worlds- a reciprocity that, ironically, proves to be very “organic” indeed in the way that it eventually makes binary modes of thinking more difficult to sustain. Much of the old world music was seen as a terminus point beyond which the target cultures would never develop, whereas global ghettotech - for all its flaws - refuses to exist solely in an echo chamber, or to be recuperated as a commodity without at least being allowed to comment on why it exists in the first place.
1 Steve Goodman, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear, p. 196. MIT Press, Cambridge, 2010.
2 Slavoj žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, p. 5. Verso, London / New York, 2009.
3 Refer to 1 above- p. 29.
4 Available online at http://www.villagevoice.com/2005-02-15/music/piracy-funds-what/
5 Available online at http://www.negrophonic.com/2008/globalistas-perifericos
6 Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, p. 23-24. Verso, London / New York, 2006.
7 Available online at http://www.ce-review.org/00/24/monroe24.html
9 Refer to 5 above.
10 Refer to 1 above- p. 28.