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.

Actress

-RC

Reverse Hallucinations in the Lower Delta

“Are Drexciyans water-breathing, aquatically mutated descendants of those unfortunate victims of human greed? Have they been spared by God to teach us or terrorize us? Did they migrate from the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi River basin and on to the Great Lakes of Michigan? Do they walk among us? Are they more advanced than us and why do they make their strange music? What is their quest? These are many of the questions that you don’t know and never will.” -The Quest, 2001

A year or so I was at Mood Ring, a New York bar to see a couple of friends, some of whom who were dj’ing that night and absolutely killing it. I don’t have much to remember that night in terms of Instagram stories or pictures outside of me crying to an Aphex Twin track. Someone born and raised in Louisiana for 25 years, you unfortunately rarely get a chance to listen to ’90 Cornish techno not in your own headphones, but it was happening. Later on in the night, thanks to my girlfriend, something transcendent happened. She requested to our friend Chris to play the swiftly now-culturally minted track “Gimme my Gots” by Shardaysha. A song we’d play on the car ride home to no avail now found its frequencies rolling through Brooklyn speakers and it was quite the sight. The song begins with the root tongue of many bounce songs, an extremely harsh rolling of the R for longer than two moments. As celebratory as we got by bringing a little warmth of home on vacation, I became to get really observant. Many of the bar patrons really didn’t know how to act. Some flailed, other recalled loose interpretations of Big Freedia music video choreography and I think someone in the corner ended up screaming for 10 seconds until the beat dropped. Needless to say, New Orleans Bounce really makes a dance floor that almost blurs the line of what’s considered dance.

If you know me, you most likely understand that I’m a sucker for semantics. In my world, definitions deeply matter so a conversation rarely can progress with me without subjective or personal connotative understanding leading the way; I like being on the same page. During the research of this writing I stumbling on a frustration definition of Bounce music and that it’s considered (at least by Wikipedia) not to be a dance genre, but a sub-genre of southern hip-hop. In a more general sense, classification via an open source information website may not matter all that much and probably doesn’t but it did get me thinking: why don’t we attribute New Orleans Bounce music to the lineage of American dance music? Regionally, many dance parties that start with the 90’s hits flow into house and afrobeat but any DJ worth their weight in the Crescent City will most definitely end the night on a bounce shakedown; Bunny Hop afterparty if you’re lucky. Unfortunately New Orleans Bounce on the flow charted path solidified on dance floors around the world begins to fade out the farther you steer from the birdsfoot to the point of inexistence. This silent shadowbanning of bounce from the continuum of black dance music is upsettingly deafening. 

As nothing new is under the rising sun, New Orleans has been around this block before. New Orleans often finds itself in the ambiguity of the black continuum and this is no different from Jazz expansion throughout America. As suffocating racism through de-facto and de-jure politics force much of black life in the Mississippi delta to Detroit, Chicago, New York and California, new definition and perspective form for the genre and the culture as a whole. Since the great migration, Jazz music has found its worldwide appeal in the Miles Davis, Dizzie Gillespie, and John Coltrane progressing Jazz away from its Big Band/Brass beginnings into modal, transcendent, or free archetypes that bare little to no distinction to Jazz’s beginnings in Congo Square. Bounce music seems to find itself in another pseudo middle-child syndrome within progressive black music circles. That cursory search on Wikipedia delineates bounce music under the genre southern hip-hop but if you head to any bar on a night here in New Orleans, you’ll quickly find bounce can be more akin to footwork than a 75 bpm riding track. That isn’t to say that it cannot be, similar to electro, bounce is infinitely amorphous; able to slow down to play at a daiquiri lounge over Sade acapellas to speaker bleeding Limewire quality Sissy Nobby track that sounds like someone recorded the last millisecond of an 808 short circuiting, tossed in the river and looped it endlessly. 

This sort of black avant-garde obfuscation is seen in Rashad’s magnum opus Double Cup (2016) where he effortlessly applies half time to the usually much “faster-than-you-can-dance-to” bpm of footwork. This celebration of auditory otherness is also seen in techno with the works of James Stintson, Heinrich Muller, and “The Wizard” Jeff Mills. Techno, House, Garage, Electro, Juke, Footwork, even breakbeat has found themselves within the continuum of black dance music that has be seen through the positive purviews of academia and cultural significance. Head to an electronic night at many venues around the world and very rarely will Bounce be played. Definitely checking the index for New Orleans dance music rears little results in a books discussing the matter. Cultural weightless often translates easily to cultural silencing where voices need to finally be heard and this is no different. 

A sort of reverse hallucination that has undergone within New Orleans and its history has been going on long before Bounce music was ever conceived. As New Orleans culture is being forgotten, so goes our tangible products. The Myth of the lost cause, renaming wards and district, repopulating areas where black families have lived for centuries, the amnesia of place brought about through transplants “discovering” “unknown” areas of the city to colonize toward their own sterile vision of New Orleans. The Drexciyan myth has had it 2nd coming in 2005. 

Accelerationism , Black Accelerationism, or specifically “Blaccelerationism” as coined by Aria Dean, touts that black people have been living in a “post” environment since the Middle Passage in the 1600’s. Fractured and spread around the world having to build cultures anew from trash and leftovers and over less than 2000 years that formerly label, ghetto is now the Babylon of the world with Hip-Hop and Black people being the culture d’jour for society writ large. I believe that New Orleans accelerated even faster than many other cities not only throughout America but around the world due to Geologic (subsidence), historically (Treme) and politically (Chocolate City). We don’t have the time. We’ve lost our land. Bedrock doesn’t exist. New Orleans lives paradoxically in the ending and subsequently end of days. The end of our world was early in the morning between 7:21 – 8:29 at August 25, 2005. Along the 4 canal breaches through the Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview and began to fill homes past attics and roofs, many clocks stopped as they were inundated by the storm surge of Katrina. These clocks formed of symphony of timelessness for the gulf coast as we knew it. A moment of silence for a city once afforded love, care, and resource. The next two months after the waters breach is well documented to be nothing short of a complete catastrophe. FEMA blocked delivery of emergency supplies to Methodist Hospital, turned away Chalmette Medical doctors at the emergency staging area at Louis Armstrong Airport due to their names in a government database, actively blocked flights carrying private medical air transport, refused Amtrak’s many offers to evacuate victims, didn’t return calls from the American Bus Association or the Motorcoach Association, turned away trucks from Walmart, prevented the Coast Guard to deliver diesel fuel, and delayed all emergency supplies, vehicles, and equipment from other nations for months. The complete lack of non-federal aid exacerbated problems greatly as the Superdome had reached past capacity at over 20,000 and were all moved to the Convention Center within one day. For both evacuee areas, there was no air conditioning or proper sanitation.

The accelerations towards the collapse of the American empire is something we’ve all felt and read in the past three years or so since the 45th president’s arrival into our subconscious and twitter-feed, but these anxieties have been torturing the south’s brains for decades and came to a head in more than 10 years ago. Environmental anxiety, climate change, political corruption, etc. are the ABC’s of Louisianan culture. Everyone knows the concept of a post-environment without understanding it at an intellectual level but it’s a whole nother story when its right before your eyes. Taking the I-10 over the Ponchartrain leads you directly through the remains of what once was. First you see forgotten planks of an old path farmers would take their cattle over to reach the metropolis. Then has you reach the banks of the lake you transition into patches of lost earth; once a vibrant marsh wetland is now whittling away back into the muddy waters of the Bay where it rose from over 200 years ago. This habitat is necessity for the large diversity of wetland species in our area, now migrating away to lands more stable or merely going existent. This of course isn’t due to the natural course the earth and its process often take. What we see in front of us is the swollen corpse of what oil and gas corporations have killed and placed at our feet. Passing the sprinkles of mudflat where fertile land use to inhabit lies the culprits. The many smokestacks and refineries at Exxon and Chevron off in the distance. Wailing their fire indefinitely and proudly before New Orleans and surrounding communities. 

Richard Misrach, 2005

Drexicya, and the Drexicyan myth is from is a techno group of the same name from Detroit Michigan formed by Heinrich Mueller and James Stinston. Not much else outside of possible occupations as truck drivers, little is known about these legendary black men. What is known is the legacy and Mythology they thankfully unearthed and provided to black people often felt left out in myth creation. Mythology is a preemptively healing mechanism. It allows for a context to take place around moments of deep turmoil and change. The Drexicya story is no different. Told across master cuttings in the rings of vinyl wax, track titles, and sleeve illustrations, the Drexicya myth begins with the story of the Atlantic trade. In the middle passage as Africans were being forced into the Western Hemisphere on colonizer boats many pregnant women decided they refused to allow their offspring this life of absolute horror and jumped off the side of these boats. As the women drowned, their unborn offspring adapted their lungs into gills and became Drexicyians, the children of middle passage. They soon navigated their way to their new home Drexicya using their intelligence and ingenuity they developed their own technology such as Wavejumpers. Drexicya (the duo) created cultures, enemies, and an entire livelihood out of immensely painful beginnings. By crafting Accelerationism (unbeknownst to them assumedly) into their own stories, this idea for a narrative to latch onto in times of great upheaval as Detroit in the 1980’s was a little rough historically for black people, can be so necessary when moving through a world that has planted you in an area of permanent between-ness. Instead of finding your people, you create your own. 

This between-ness is nothing new for New Orleans. In the Treme, many people came from descents that were hardly binary. Creoles, Cajuns, Quadroons, Passé Blanc, etc. In the genes of many people here lies an inherent float where you must attach to some formed by you otherwise you’ll pulled in so many directions and have your feet in so many homes, but can’t lay your head anywhere. This blur of life is the defining characteristic of New Orleans. And it’s music. Is Jazz classical black music? Is it folk? Is it noise (I mean that in a beautiful way !)? As a culture, bounce obfuscates what is generally understood as human or human. Is that roll of the tongue the artist on the song? Is it an 808 snare? Maybe it’s a sample from some Carl Thomas deep cut or a voicemail passage back when Cingular was thing. Hard to know. With most bounce tracks refusing to condone to the modern day music practices of sample clearance and the like, it’s tough to get these songs to any sort of legitimate syncopation and while I wished that the producers and artists we’re compensated in a way that respect how amazing these tunes are, it’s tough not to feel pride in the resilience of refusal to bend to the will of the RIAA.

The resilient stubbornness to stay firmly within the between is something that is deep in bounce music and its culture. The party bus where the party is always on the move, the samples and bpm speeding up or dropping off where you can have two slow jams and a breakdown in the same song at the same time, and an amalgamation of identity that many peoples are still coming to terms with but has been a norm here in the Crescent City. One of our biggest cultural exports (sorry to conflate real value with capitalism) is a trans musician. Sissy Nobby is a legend through the city and gets played at cookout no matter who is throwing it. Before terminology of certain folk were communicated to the world as a whole, the dynamic of “cissy” and other forms of queerness were flowing through the Magnolia projects uptown with no fanfare. The bending of masculinity with black men whom usually find themselves shackled to the wall performing a hardened silent strong type in any other setting can enjoy a loose footwork in a second line and a shake if you catch yourself caught in the middle of a cameraman following Messy Mya vlog. 

Rest In Peace

Unfortunately, in most electronic circles, New Orleans Bounce is but a footnote in the long history many have started to cherish in certain circles. The Drexicyian myth has become a welcome foundation for how people view modern black mythology through the lens of music and other art forms. Electro finds itself in the tendrils of black dance music easily as do the old tales of the Warehouse and Paradise garage in Chicago/New York dance scene respectively; but where is New Orleans in all of this? Does the south have something to say?

Historically, the form of southern black erasure is can be found in a similar narrative right up Rampart St with what has been known to be called Jazz. Due to the mass killings and awful segregationist policies of the south, many music migrated to California or Chicago in what has been come to be called the Great Migration. Unfortunately this started a domino effect with how people perceived the history of Jazz itself. Although people give New Orleans the torch with it beginnings, much of the conversation soon deviates to Cool Jazz in California, or the Coltranes and Sun Ra’s of the time. With all due respect to these people, those that write about the great works in their wake rarely carry the conversation back to the roots. A sort of reverse hallucenation is had where the history begins is what where choose to see the joy, not where the pain is had. This sense of black trauma erasure is an oft-forgotten pattern with most of New Orleans. Between Jazz and Bounce, these genres providing the same historical lineage of many cultures first created in the delta, Black Atlantic Music. As the Drexicyas pass the mouth of the Mississippi River onward the clock is reset once in Motor City. 

As a culture, bounce already obfuscates what is generally understood as human or otherwise. Transness, queer identity, masculinity, it’s all up in the area. There are no boundaries between thematic, the performer, and the identity that lies in between. Already too fast for radio. Accelerationism is inherit to bounce music as technology and humanity is in lockstep as a means to the end of dismantling what we have prior perceived to be dance/southern rap or any kind of music at all. Bounce has been deconstructing club music before the website as the likes of Resident Advisor or Pitchfork began to herald the onset of what is to be considered deconstructed club music. This human-machine-ambiguity-boundary is laid bare in Bounce with the fog itself being one of the most radical notions I’ve seen in my time as lover of music (see: birth). The Roland 808 drum machine is the match to the powder keg of modern black Atlantic music. For bounce, electro, footwork, and techno, this machine is the canvas for which black expressive was spread and queered across dance floors around the world. For New Orleans, the Roland 808 and the artists that used it solidified how femininity was viewed as the dominant culture in the city. Something the Underground Resistance thankfully didn’t find themselves speaking to as it was a group of CIS black men. Not to say they had to, but even during their Salad Days, there was a diversity of voice are speaking to black rebellion from even further marginalized environments and backgrounds; to know that there are elders for those who may feel like they are walking alone can be one of the best feelings in the world and thankfully, the people are out there and so is the work they’ve done. We just need to remember that we forgot.

https://digitallibrary.tulane.edu/islandora/object/tulane:p16313coll68

Sorry this took so long. If I kept it in my brain any longer I would’ve needed to make it a second job. This is not at all exhaustive of my thoughts, but I hope it’ll suffice (for now)

-Ryan Clarke 🙂