Ghettoville (2014): An Ode to Forgotten Black Geometries

DJ Screw’s 1996 Impala Super Sport on blades painted Screw Blue.

“Would you like to go with me
Down my dead end street
Would you like to come with me
To Village Ghetto Land”

-Stevie Wonder

Do you ever walk the streets you grew up on? Pristine sidewalks now overgrown with weeds and detritus. The once lively dollar stores where you’d excitedly beg your parents to grab a toy or piece of candy morphed into a sunken hole in the wall. To observe your beginnings as ash can be quite a haunted feeling and Ghettoville takes this feeling to its terminal conclusion; a siren cry for spaces displaced.

Darren Cunningham’s 2014 masterwork, Ghettoville, is a stark reflection of a time that once reveled in the advancement of modernity irrevocably shattered. In the UK, the 90’s brought a hopefulness spitting out an encyclopedia’s worth of dance genres annually and Labour winning in a landslide victory once shined a ray of light toward the bleak horizon of the future. But as the 2000’s waned and we now look back on the 2010’s, the cracks that began to show not only fractured completely but swallowed any notion of hope towards a brighter tomorrow. Sea levels rising, bushfire engulfing the Australian landscape, Brexit marching ever onward, and the Forever War becoming the topic du jour; art nowadays finds itself to be in dialog, sub-consciously or otherwise, about this greying of once blue skies. 

But it’s Cunningham’s 2014 techno funeral dirge double album that questions that very notion and proposes a different context: weren’t those grey skies already here and if so, for whom? 

The dialog that Ghettoville contends with can be approached on nearly level: the cover art of a muddied array of shapes and sketches that seem to be collapsing in front of your eyes, the sound design enrapturing you in glimmers of various windows of blurred glass looking out to the inner city, the song titles give way to allusion of feelings, moments, and what lies behind you after the end of the history. 

Actress – Rims (2014)

Albeit mostly voiceless, these titles allude to lush stories within mostly voiceless pieces. The back to back suite of “Corner” and “Rims” communicates a world-building ethos which sets the tones for the rest of the project. The corner, a territory of which Black culture has coined wholesale has its own, is an upbeat tune with even a small screwed-up “Yeah” every bar or so; giving the album fleeting wisps of swagger within desolation. These moments glides effortlessly into “Rims”, a track with a bouncy baseline worth riding around with but realizing the radio about to die and the neighborhood you’re riding around is a big shell of overgrown car-washes and seemingly bombed out barbershops once holding life and love for its people now all displaced.

The titles and track names relate to tangible, geographic elements remembering that culture and place are inseparable and when they are extracted from each other, a fallacy is created. This fallacy shows up in music festivals or at live shows with the poetry spoken on stage falling onto a listener that could never truly understand what is being told to them. Such a fallacy has been seen for what is it by some artists such as NoName, who said that she’d no longer do shows for predominately white audiences. This apparent lack of dialog comes about when the people and place the work is for no longer plays a role in the system for where to work lies within. “For Them, By Us” doesn’t really roll off the tongue. 

Tracks 6 and 10, “Birdcage” and “Gaze” respectively, is what the outside world may see of Black culture when observed from the outside in. Both tracks easily provide the most energy for an album otherwise on life support. The title “Birdcage” supplants this track in the lineage of Maya Angelou’s writing and although some may think they know why the caged bird sings, if you’ve never been in that cage yourself it’ll only be a hollowed understanding. 

Actress – Gaze (2014)

This idea is galvanized in “Gaze”, the only semi-party ready track on the album. The title alone provides a world of investigation. For how fun this song is, it keeps you at arm’s length; all of its drops and progression subsumed by a grey digital haze. You can look but don’t touch since what you’ve already touch has decayed to what you see before you. This hallowed out house number recontextualizes euphoric joys reached at peak hours and subtly asks you what it means for an entire people’s discursive culture to be stolen into a cultural where they are not heard, seen, or acknowledged except a couple of records that made their mark long before I Love Techno and Majestic Casual became the new history of techno and dance culture.

The examination of what’s left of Black cultures like techno and house once they’ve been gentrified is this record’s bread and butter. Ghettoville refuses to look away from the ways in which this parasitic relationship usually ends in poverty for its creators. “Rap” is a screwed-up R&B track with the phrase ”Wrap yourself around me” playing incessantly for 3 minutes straight. Its constantness gives way to a sinister take on the once silky smoothness of it gives way. The closing track, “Rule” is a slyly joyful but still hallowed tune with various 80’s hip-hop flows stacking and collapsing onto each other behind a Crystal Waters melody. For all the grime, depression, and death that this album showcases in an almost cinematic portrayal, Ghettoville (and most of Cunningham’s past work) ends on a quietly beautiful finale. Whispers of content gratefulness of what life we have between us all as the screen fades to black.

That is of course, if you don’t wait until after the credits with the Japanese bonus track. The idea of Japanese bonus track began decades ago has many CD sellers in Japan realized it was more inexpensive to pirate or import CD’s from countries so the music industry as a whole started incentivizing purchasing Japan’s own CDs by including a bonus track or two. The hope was that Japanese fans would wait and pay more for the local CD than the cheaper import. Boards of Canada’s 2002 magnum opus Geogaddi’s Japanese bonus track “From One Source All Things Depends”, provides an uplifted new ending to what is otherwise a deeply pagan-occult-eerie record. The closer samples an interview of various kids being asked who is god to them. Some say “he’s a big fat man in the air and you can’t see him!” while others speak of him conceptually, but it’s the last boy with the response, “…he’s not though, what – a lot of people think he’s just a feeling – but I think he’s a real person…”. For a record has a running time of 1 hour 6 minutes and 6 seconds, and track titles as “The Devil is In the Details” and “Beware the Friendly Stranger”, such a warm ending feels more complete than the 2 minute nihilistic coda of digital silence of “Magic Window”. 

Boards of Canada – From One Source All Things Depend (2002)

However, the anthesis occurs on Ghettoville with the ending track no longer being the bit of sunshine that is “Rule”, but the eight-minute death-final-finale “Grey Over Blue”. “Grey Over Blue” is the musical equivalent of watching an animal die in an empty forest. If there’s a pulse, it only returns diminished results with each cycle. It’s an ending sequence that feels like an aerial shot of the lifeless city we just hobbled through for the past two hours. Without resource or aid, forgotten with no forgiveness. Where “Rule” may be the ending we want, “Grey Over Blue” is the ending that lies in front of us. Ever encroaching on its fate in becoming the present. 

Grey Over Blue – Actress & Nic Hamilton

Ghettoville is a blueprint for how it recontextualize techno by placing a magnifying glass on the landscape from which it was taken away from. It examines the unexamined, giving attention (and in turn humanity) to the forgotten. It gives a proper eulogy to the body of Black dance music tossed overboard by the Ibizas and Coachellas of the world. The album is steeped in homage to these victims of revisional history. “Grey Over Blue” is a literal reversal of “Blue Over Gray”, a 1998 DJ Screw album (which opens with a 8 mins meditative track). “Rap”, the lone single from Ghettoville, was touted by various online outlets to be a vaporware track but this is merely another version of cultural erasure. It’s a screwed-up track in every sense of the word but with the internet’s constant bout of amnesia, the current history is that Cunningham is merely biting a 2012 internet genre and not giving praise to Black artists and structures before him. “Rap” plays with homonyms alluding to double entendre, “Wrap/Rap yourself around me”. Which word do we decide the vocalist wants us to do? Do we give in to their ask of consuming them or do we narrativize them until their story is ours? Is there a difference between to two?

Actress – Rap (2014)

The aforementioned track “Gaze” continues to be the crown jewel of this concept, how most people experience techno do so with an abstracted gaze. The song itself being this idea at its core as “Gaze” is but a sample of an older actress tune, “Point and Gaze”; a second-order distancing act to gaze upon “Gaze” itself. A gaze that can never be switched for the real thing no matter how close you think you are to it. 

Thankfully since 2014, many people have been carrying the torch of letting others know about this gaze. Artist and writer, Deforrest Brown Jr. gives even more light to the once forgotten fact that Techno is for and by Black people or with crews such as Discwoman, doing an annual festival known as Dweller where Black techno artists come together to uplift and amplify each other in what is an otherwise deeply whitewashed industry.

To finally start fixing our ills is to not only look intimately at our environment but to hold those who caused it accountable. Ghettoville allows us to observe and to become complicit in our past, present, and future. An ode to the spaces, materials, and shapes that Black people create and subsequently get torn apart from. The corner depopulates, the rims rust, the birdcage vacant. What a space sounds like once you remove all the physical material that made the system what it was. I’ll end with the press release that came before the album’s release 6 years ago this month. Happy birthday Ghettoville, may your death live on forever.

William Stein – ‘Function’, a response to Actress’s ‘Birdcage’

Ghettoville is the bleached out and black tinted conclusion of the Actress image.

Where the demands of writing caught the artist slumped and reclined, devoid of any soul, acutely aware of the simulated prism that required breakout.

Four albums in and the notes and compositions no longer contain decipherable language.

The scripts now carry tears, the world has returned to a flattened state, and out through that window, the birds look back into the cage they once inhabited.

Spitting flames behind a white wall of silence.

The machines have turned to stone, data reads like an obituary to its user.

A fix is no longer a release, it’s a brittle curse. Zero satisfaction, no teeth, pseudo artists running rampant, but the path continues.

R.I.P Music 2014.



Suffocation of the Void: Hauntology, New Orleans, and Art Neville

Art Neville

I was in the airport heading back home to New Orleans when I was told Art Neville died. The lady next to me in the Washington-Reagan airport (where I passed Elizabeth Warren oddly enough) repeated the news to anyone kind enough to look in her direction. She kept this sentiment up on the plane (we shared a row, even more oddly enough) where she asked people in front and behind the two of us their memories of Art Neville: which Jazz Fest they saw him at, what Meters’ record was their favorite, which songs did they most certainly know but never knew he played a role in producing, playing, or writing. Maybe it’s the niceties of southern hospitality, as everyone smiled and granted her space for the moment. But she took up quite a lot of space for conversation. Made me think about what’s left of us when we leave is the space we leave. Maybe it was really Art Neville taking up the space, haunting the pressurized cabin on the way back to his home 33,000 feet in the sky.

The Meters – “Cissy Strut” Live at Jazz Fest 1993

2019 has been a deeply tumultuous year for the city of New Orleans. Many legends such as Dr. John, Dave Bartholemew, Leah Chase, and most recently Art Neville of the Neville Brothers have all passed to the great big second line in the sky. Neville started the band Neville Sounds, which became The Meters back in the early 1960’s alongside his brothers and friends. They gained massive acclaim through their various albums under this name, influencing the creation and rise of funk music with various artists such as the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and Stevie Wonder as well known fans. As long as you live in New Orleans, or at least come down for Mardi Gras, you’ll never be too far from his voice with songs like “Mardi Gras Mambo” or “Hey Pocky Way” coming out of various cookouts, car radios, or festivals reverberating down and uptown. Art Neville unfortunately passed away last weekend at the age of 81 leaving behind a huge legacy that is impossible to properly deal with conclusively. Seriously, the man sang “Mardi Gras Mambo,” so he’s basically immortal. He takes up a lot of space. 

As most people already know, New Orleans has a beautiful perspective of the passing of souls on Earth. There is the formal funeral that we all know with the casket in front of the pulpit and the ceremonial grieving process alongside family, friends, and in celebrities case’s, fans most likely outside. But it is the aftermath that is unique to this city; a second-line starts outside with the casket in-tow. A joyous and raucous occasion to celebrate the life and next chapter of the passage of time. Umbrellas, trumpets, and footwork fill the streets for hours until the parade is over and the casket finds its way to one of the many cemeteries throughout New Orleans. And there are a lot of cemeteries. They take up quite a bit of space. 

The geology of New Orleans lends itself to quite a bit: fisheries, trade, fertile soil, and much more that’s all connected to the Mississippi. But it also has many setbacks. Most notably, that we are below sea level and because of that, as many people who grew up in Louisiana wanting a place to play shows or having our little cave at the house, we can not have basements since we’re very close to the water table. We also cannot have graveyards either in the understood sense but mausoleums, above ground graves of small buildings that form a still metropolis within and outside the city on various blocks both residential and commercial. You kind of can’t miss it, it takes up a lot of space.

Ok, now that the rule of threes is said and done I hope you understand what I’m getting at. New Orleans has a problem with space, both geologically and culturally. Probably because the two are inherently linked forever. The geography of this city, snug between a river’s bend and the Lake Pontchartrain placed it at a crossroads. Various demographics have intermingled in a way where people’s lineages can be so mangled up, we have to lean on which high school you went to or what road your grandma stayed on to feel a sense of kinship. This type of intersectionality brought a flourish of culture with the pinnacle widely understood to be the creation of jazz music in Congo Square. If you live in New Orleans, you almost certainly know this, as you can’t walk down the street or change the radio dial without understanding we are proud and loud of what happened here. Unfortunately, as it seems, those ideologies seem to hold firmly only within the past tense. It happened here. The only problem is, what happens here and how are we giving room for it to be its own?

There is a specter haunting New Orleans. It glides right above every street corner, in every bar, at every venue, and any instrument that finds itself within the city’s limits. It’s unavoidable and it takes up so much room. First coined by philosopher Jacques Derrida and expanded upon by theorist Mark Fisher in the mid-2000’s, hauntology communicates the idea of pining for a future that never was or the non-existence of a certain thing continuing its existence in the present. That what is no longer continues to take up space in its non-existence is the most prevalent idea to New Orleans today; this void increases and makes itself that much more obvious with each passing of the many monoliths of our culture. The void has become so bloated that I believe there’s little to no room for a culture of modern artists in the city to canonize themselves within their own narratives. Did the gate close right after Wynton Marsalis? PJ Morton? Maybe they’ll always be a backdoor for straight black men in the city to profit off of the haunting ghost of jazz still wailing away in every beginner’s guide and ghost tour. Hauntology is a concept that should be of great importance to this city, because it is our only currency in the 21st century down here. One could make the case for bounce music being true counterculture to this idea (I’ll get into this on another post soon !), but one listen to the same 3 samples that have been used in 99.8% of bounce tracks (links posted below, but shout out Drag Rap and Brown Beats) will quickly bring about the understanding that New Orleans bounce has its own little haint in the Crescent City that grows with each party bus and gas station shakedown on Elysian.  

A typical shakedown that usually ends up at a gas station

The definition of this generation is that there isn’t any. Temporal compression is the culprit to why many 20 somethings feel like we don’t have a collective pillar to connect with no matter where we are. Compression being the act of demonstrating multiple generations within one so that any boundary markers we use to delineate between one time period and the next are completely flattened on top of one another.  Whatever lines were brought about between clothes, cars, and styles every 10 years or so has folded on itself so many times in the past decade, there’s no heads or tails in figuring it out because there’s no body to decipher between them. All the markers signifying generations (flannel, film cameras, neon, vinyl, natural hair, bell bottoms, etc) are all found easily in the right now. Expanding this idea to music can be quite simple if you listen for it. Amy Winehouse’s soul singing, mastered with the Motown Sound and her acoustic instrumentation blurs any confidence of time and space. “Tears Dry On Their Own” could’ve been made in 2007 or 1967. Same goes for many various artists using techniques and samples from across time where the end result is not having a particular sound, but all of them; or at least in a way where you couldn’t tie a song to a year like you could in the 80’s per se. Another example to be used can be Bruno Mars. New Jack Swing 90’s revival? 80’s Cameo adjacent? Uptown Funk 70’s flip? It boggles the mind to think back to my 20’s decades from now and envision my nostalgia being nostalgia of my parents childhood, but rebooted and diluted (If I start talking about movies this essay won’t end). This, of course, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the double edged sword can be found when picking through the pieces and trying to make your own statement within the detritus of years passed. Of course, many have approached this idea with soaring success. Burial’s 2007 UK Magnum Opus Untrue is the first to come to mind for me. Bring the passage of time into a physical sense by creating rave albums from 90’s London underground culture, now long gone, with an immersible auditory fog that is impossible to weave away from and must be confronted. The deterioration and collapse is the subject. 

“Near Dark” from Burial’s 2007 album Untrue

Compression can often lend itself to a very solemn view of the world. When you play with detritus, things easily turn melancholic. However, you can also go the other way with the concept. When I Get Home, an album recently released by current New Orleanian Solange Knowles, approaches the ghost of Spiritual Jazz and her hometown haunt, DJ Screw (Rest In Peace) with love, adoration, and reverence. But she does this with a completeness that feels resonate to the gravity of a lot of the pain many people (most notably those of a black femme experience) are feeling right now. Within a collapse, a lot of love can happen in the rubble. This arrangement of music speaks quietly but powerfully so, to the collapse of a city nurturing a haunted space into a culture anew; adapting to the past, present, and future. (Also, for what it’s worth, WIGH dropped on the first day of the Mardi Gras holiday, so I’m rolling with the head-canon that this is just as much a Nola album as it is an H-town one). Shooting a visual album in the Rothko Chapel built in 1971 that houses works from 1964, Solange crafts melodies that include Youtube clips from 2007, Photo Booth audio, chopped and screwed samples from 1990, and Coltrane references. That’s to say, When I Get Home is pretty compressive and we’re all the better for it. We still have to adapt with the void that was already and will (was) already here, but sometimes how we approach this is often dictated by our own surroundings before we even choose to act.  

“Now we deal with the freakin’…but thats… volume two”

And it is here where the geology mixes with the hauntological understanding of culture. There is little room for true newness in the city due to their being no room in New Orleans at all. In fact, we’re losing land just like we’re losing figures of New Orleans. Can we restore this 300-year old city back to “the good days”? Well, for one that’s the problem and actually misses the point of this post. It’s not about restoration or even sustainability, as both of these acts are ripe for resulting in failure. It should be about adaptability. Part of that comes about through new ideas (look down for 2014 post on how the Netherlands, in a similar experience with deeply critical land loss and subsidence, deals with their issues). It’s not about putting up walls and slowly encasing the living population of New Orleans into its own leveed mausoleum, it should be about creating adaptability. That means pushing away the idea that the New Orleans narrative has been written and we’re only watching the pages wash away until its all gone from One More Hurricane. This city is beaming with artists so interesting and in need of support,  yet we cannot seem to escape a culture made for someone else’s survival. Someone that will never understand our particular problems this city and that its people face now. Jazz resonated with the folks of the 20th century because it spoke to the issues many of the marginalized dealt with. 80’s and 90’s rap outfits like Mobo Records, and Cash Money resonated with those of that time and forever made their mark on the city, although walking Uptown or past Treme airbnbs, some would try to say different. I’ll definitely praise the 2000’s being a beautiful second wave of bounce music with Sissy Nobby, Nicky da B (Rest In Peace), Big Freedia, and Messy Mya (Rest in Peace) grappling with the tragedy of Katrina by answering with a centering resurgence of one of the many things that made the city what it was before August 2005 and later months tried to erase. Moments like that need a haunting of beauty to show what was will always be was always-already. But what do we have in front of us today? A lot more transplants (more literal space being taken up !) a lot more traffic, and a reversion of culture that refuses to look forward due to that fact that so much has already occurred here culturally, geologically, and temporally that anyone here is suffocating from history. If there’s a call of action to be made here, it’s that we must become cognizant of the poly-consciousness that has taken place here in New Orleans for centuries and understand there’s always space to add just one more. As the void grows, we need to move within, around, and apart to find ourselves in the long lineage of what made this city was it is. If we can do that, maybe we just might have something kind to say about a future New Orleans legend at pre-check.

Lastly, here’s thats 2014 Netherlands Post on Sea level rise adaptability.

Peace be to Art Neville, Dr. John, Leah Chase and the many past and future leaders of New Orleans Creations.