Polymetric Thought and Dub Improvisation by Obsolete Capitalism
Text Roots and Wires 59
by Erik Davis
Polymetric Thought and Dub Improvisation
by Obsolete Capitalism
The present essay by Erik Davis, written in 1996, is of extraordinary importance for our series of books and for the rhizosphere thought in general. Despite its 22 years of age, the essay still displays its keenness and foresight. If it is true that it maintains the captivating vibration of the 90s, the essay of the Californian writer has great merit according to the metamatic perspective of the Strong of the Future: it enriches the Deleuzian thought with the “polyrhythmic splendour” of the Afro-diasporic cultures of the last part of the ‘90s and of the new century.
To be even more explicit we can say that after Guattari (1992) and Deleuze’s (1995) death, the scholars’ approach to rhizospheric thinking was running the risk to crystallize in a rigid and textual reading of the pages of A Thousand Plateaux and, above all of 1837 of the Refrain. The consequence was that the musical discourse seemed to be mummified in French itineraries of the French-German direct relationship among Proust, Schumann, Wagner, Schoenberg, Berg, Mahler, Boulez, Stockhausen, Messiaen, with the only “correction” brought by the hegemonic musical approach of the ‘60s and ‘70s: the relationship between improvisation, alea, and contemporary Western music. It was represented by the American wave of Cage and of minimalists like Reich, Riley and Glass, extended up to the Italian composers Bussotti, Nono and Berio. However in 1837 of the Refrain, the “unsaid” and the “unheard” is represented by the explicit lack of references to polymetric and polyrhythmic minor music, in particular of those rhythms and sounds from the vast world of black culture, both African and American. Not to mention the lack, in A Thousand Plateaux, of another great non-European musical tradition, including Indian and Middle Eastern Arab music. Finally the complete lack of all musical experimentation out of the academic tradition, generically represented by the non-mainstream pop and by the Western underground music like the electronic music in its various forms, increases the danger of a premature ageing and drying of A Thousand Plateaux.
Deleuze and Guattari’s new concept of rhythm, repeated by the first wave of commentators, is then very European, white, masculine, academic and elitist. It will be only in the 1990s, that Achim Szepanski, Kodwo Eshun and Erik Davis will update the minor sound lines with the revolutionary nucleus of rhizomatic thought, that is to say the philosophy of Rhythm and Chaos in A Thousand Plateaux. In particular, the anti-Cartesian and anti-Ordo Geometricus axis of Erik Davis’ essay offers an excellent rhythmic counter-tempo between Deleuze and Guattari’s thought and the “polyrhythmic splendour” of contemporary music “against the beat” such as dub and drum and bass. It redefines a new language, a real sonic esperanto, that is a new underground urban axis, between rough metropolitan dimensions, afro-diasporic rhizomatic lines and polymetric, polyrhythmic African music.
It is therefore thanks to the revolutionary significance of essays such as Roots and Wires that today we can finally draw a powerful abstract line passing through Deleuze, Nietzsche and Guattari’s chaosmotic philosophy, Glissant and Gilroy’s Creole and Caribbean intellectuality, the ground-breaking minor electronic music of a cyber globalized world, and the rich, ancestral rhythmical heritage of traditional Western African cultures.
Erik Davis’s essay paves the way to a new form of non-metric thought, which we consider the prelude to new modes of existence, as outlined in the chaos-opera Chaos Sive Natura, in favour of nonpulsed men and times...
Roots and Wires
Polyrhythmic Cyberspace and the Black Electronic
An early version of this piece was delivered at 5CYBERCONF, Madrid, 1996. It was later published in Paul D. Miller, ed. Sound Unbound, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008).
Where are we? The collective mindscapes we both find and lose ourselves within seem to be rapidly mutating: the compressed “urban” density of an increasingly globalized, networked, and overpopulated world; the twilight zones introduced by media saturation and the collapse of master narratives; the blurry boundary regions between identities, ethnicities, bodies, cultures; the virtual interdimensions of cyberspace. These new social and psychic morphologies demand that we reimagine space itself.
One thing is clear: the Cartesian coordinate system will no longer suffice as our central conceptual or tactical model for the spaces that surround and shape us. We need more complex folds, more permeable milieus, more capable disorientations. We need models that avail themselves to intensive as well as extensive spaces, to voids as well as substances. We need images and allegories that can somehow suggest the yawning multiplicities and complex networks that lurk on the horizon of thought and experience like the yawning hyperspaces of science-fiction’s headier cosmologies.
Groping for models of contemporary space that evade or pervert the Cartesian coordinate system, we would do well to recall Marshall McLuhan’s distinction between visual and acoustic space. For McLuhan, “visual space” did not refer to the sensual dimension encountered through human vision, but specifically to the linear, logical, and sequential perceptual and cognitive array constructed by Western Renaissance perspective, linear type, and ultimately alphanumeric characters. We know it from Descartes and from William Gibson: a homogenous space organized by an objective coordinate grid that simultaneously produces an apparently coherent individual subject who maintains control over his or her unique point of view. Not only do we “naturally” overlay this panoptic grid onto the far more ambiguous field of actual vision, but we have embraced it as the dominant conceptual image of space itself.
McLuhan believed that electronic media were subverting visual space by introducing “acoustic space”: a psychological, social and perceptual mode that eroded visual space’s logical clarity and Cartesian subjectivity, returning us electronically to a kind of premodern experience what he once called, with characteristic sloppiness, “the Africa within.”
Simply put, acoustic space is the space we hear: multi-dimensional, resonant, invisibly tactile, “a total and simultaneous field of relations.” Though these “holistic” properties are important, I’d like to sidestep the simple unity that holism implies by stressing the co-dependent play of multiplicities within acoustic space. Unlike visual space, where points generally either fuse or remain distinct, blocks of sound can overlap and interpenetrate without necessarily collapsing into a harmonic unity or consonance, thereby maintaining the paradox of “simultaneous difference”.
On top of its value as an alternative, refreshingly non-visual model of cyberspace, McLuhan’s notion of acoustic space opens up a historical and cultural dimension of cyberspace that has often been overlooked: the musical spaces produced predominantly or wholly through electronic means. After all, from the invisible landscapes of Cage and Stockhausen to the analog explorations of dub reggae producers and synthesizer wizards in the 1970s to the digital soundscapes that shape the ambient, jungle, and hip-hop of today, a significant portion of electronically-mediated music has been explicitly concerned with constructing virtual spaces.
In this paper, I am interested in one particular zone of electro-acoustic cyberspace, a zone I’m calling the Black Electronic. I’ve dubbed the term from the British cultural theorist Paul Gilroy, who uses the phrase the “Black Atlantic” to denote the “webbed network” of the African diasporic culture that penetrates the United States, the Caribbean, and, by the end of the twentieth century, the UK. Gilroy considers the Black Atlantic a modernist countercultural space, a space that, for all the claims of black cultural nationalists, is not organized by African roots but by a “rhizomorphic, routed” set of vectors and exchanges: ships, migrations, creoles, phonographs, European miscegenations, expatriot flights, dreams of repatriation. The image of the criss-crossed Atlantic ocean is essential for Gilroy’s purpose, which is to erode the monolithic notion of roots and tradition by emphasizing the “restless, recombinant” qualities of Afrodiasporic culture as it simultaneously explores, exploits, and resists the spaces of modernity.
So I’m using the Black Electronic to characterize those electro-acoustic cyberspaces that emerge from the historical-cultural context of the Black Atlantic. Though I do believe that some of the “roots” of these spaces lie in West Africa, I am more concerned with their decidedly “rhizomorphic” behavior as they criss-cross that acoustic dimension that David Toop has called, in a slightly different context, the twentieth century’s “ocean of sound.” In particular, I want to explore one specific zone within the Black Electronic: the remarkable acoustic spaces that emerge when the polyrhythmic sensibility found in traditional West African drumming encounter those electronic instruments, at once “musical” and “technological,” that record, reproduce, and manipulate sound.
Drumming Up Polyrhythmic Space
When we consider the question of how the temporal flux of music conjures up the qualitative sense of space, we do not usually turn to rhythm. Instead, we consider ambient sound, noise, echo, and the sense of dimension introduced by variations in pitch and widely distributed tonal clusters. Rhythm even seems to cut against the subjective construction of musical space, slicing and dicing the acoustic dimension into purely temporal events. But I would like to suggest that West African polyrhythm carves out a unique and powerful dimension of acoustic space by generating an array of autonomous milieus which are layered, stacked, and constantly interpenetrating a “nomadic” space of multiplicity unfolded on the fly. Polyrhythm impels the listener to explore a complex space of beats, to follow any of a number of fluid, warping, and shifting lines of flight, to submit to what the hip hop act A Tribe Called Quest calls “The rhythmic instinction to yield to travel beyond existing forces of life.”
It must be said that the West has a rather repellent history of reducing African and Afrodiasporic culture to its rhythms. At the same time, we should not let Hollywood images of “savage” and “frenetic” drumming (or the more subtle distortions that emerge with over-generalized discussions such as my own), obscure the pivotal role that rhythm plays in West African aesthetics, social organization, and metaphysics. Nor should the evident psycho-physiological power of drums and their intimacy with dancing bodies obstruct their more abstract, conceptual, or virtual powers. As I hope to imply throughout this paper, West African drumming can serve as an excellent analog model for a variety of pressing technocultural discussions about distributed networks, the philosophy and perception of multiplicities, and the emergent properties of complex systems.
Though I prefer the looser and more playful term polyrhythm, traditional West African drumming is perhaps more accurately described as polymetric. The meter is the standard unit of time that divides European music. In most symphonies or ensembles, all instruments basically follow the same meter; the shared rhythm is counted evenly and stressed on every main beat. We thus call Western rhythm divisive because it is divided into standard units of time. But the traditional rhythms of West African music are considered additive, a term which already gives us an indication of their fundamental multiplicity. The music’s complex percussive patterns bubble up from the shifting and open-ended interaction between many different individual drum patterns and pitches. As John Miller Chernoff puts it, “in African music there are always at least two rhythms going on.”
In order to notate this music, which is traditionally passed on mnemonically and orally, Western musicologists are forced to assign different meters to different instruments–hence, “polymetric”. Written down, the measures that organize the repetitive beat sequences associated with each instrument can be of variable lengths and time signatures. Neither the bar lines nor the main beats associated with each instrument coincide, but instead are “staggered” throughout a music whose rhythmic motifs are constantly appearing and disappearing. Individual musicians thus practice what is called “apart-playing,” maintaining a definite distance between their beats and those of the other drummers, a “space of difference” which refuses to collapse or fuse into a unified rhythmic “point.” In turn this produces permanent conversations or cross-patterns between each drum, a dialogue which is also a complex dimension of difference introduced between elements that are themselves often quite repetitive and simple.
Though this description is overly schematic, we can nonetheless understand that polyrhythm has little to do with pure repetition. As Deleuze and Guattari point out in “On the Refrain,” their crucial chapter on aesthetics from Mille Plateaux, “It is the difference that is rhythmic, not the repetition, which nevertheless produces it: productive repetition has nothing to do with reproductive meter [my emphasis].” Even to call West African drumming “polymetric” is already to define it from a perspective it eludes. As Deleuze and Guattari write, “Meter, whether regular or not, assumes a coded form whose unit of measure may vary, but in a non communicating milieu, whereas rhythm is the Unequal or the Incommensurable that is always undergoing transcoding. Meter is dogmatic, but rhythm is critical: it ties together critical moments, or ties itself together in passing from one milieu to another. It does not operate in a homogeneous space-time, but by heterogeneous blocks. It changes direction.”
But what exactly constitutes these “milieus” within an actual polyrhythmic ensemble? “Every milieu is vibratory,” Deleuze and Guattari write. “In other words, a block of space-time constituted by the periodic repetition of the component. Every milieu is coded, a code being defined by periodic repetition.” It seems clear: each specific milieu is a block of space-time produced by the exacting repetitions of each individual drum. Polyrhythmic communication thus unfolds as an interdimensional play of milieus a mutating array of slices, splits, folds and fusions; an acoustic hyperspace. “One milieu serves as the basis for another, or conversely is established atop another milieu, dissipates in it or is constituted in it. The notion of the milieu is not unitary: not only does the living thing [the dancer/ listener] continually pass from one milieu to another, but the milieus pass into one another; they are essentially communicating. The milieus are open to chaos, which threatens them with exhaustion or confusion. Rhythm is the milieu’s answer to chaos.”
And with the ancient mediation of the drum, this potent play between chaos and rhythm carries us outside of theory and into the dance of lived multiplicity. Polyrhythmic music provides a primary and unusually intuitive avenue, not just to conceptualize, but to draw these heterogeneous spaces, chaotic passages and communicating milieus into our bodyminds as we weave ourselves into the polyrhythmic ensemble’s fibrillating tapestry of molecular beats and criss-crossed percussive patterns.
To demonstrate just how polyrhythm mobilizes philosophical concepts, I want to turn to Chernoff’s excellent African Rhythm and African Sensibility. In the following extensive sample, which I have cut and spliced from various points of his book, the author, self-consciously writing from a Western perspective, unfolds a sort of pragmatics of polyrhythmic listening. Though the philosophical aspects of his discussion are only implied, I ask you to listen as well for these overtones:
The effect of polymetric music is as if the different rhythms were competing for our attention. No sooner do we grasp one rhythm than we lose track of it and hear another. In something like Adzogba or Zhem it is not easy to find any constant beat at all. The Western conception of a main beat or pulse seems to disappear, and a Westerner who cannot appreciate the rhythmic complications and who maintains his habitual listening orientation quite simply gets lost…The situation is uncomfortable because if the basic meter is not evident, we cannot understand how two or more people can play together or, even more uncomfortably, how anyone can play at all… We begin to ‘understand’ African music by being able to maintain, in our minds or our bodies, an additional rhythm to the ones we hear. Hearing another rhythm to fit alongside the rhythms of an ensemble is basically the same kind of orientation for a listener that apart-playing is for a musician a way of being steady within a context of multiple rhythms…Only through the combined rhythms does the music emerge, and the only way to hear the music properly, to find the beat…is to listen to at least two rhythms at once. You should attempt to hear as many rhythms as possible working together yet remaining distinct.
Because listeners are forced to adopt any of a number of possible rhythmic perspectives–subjective assemblages which themselves reorganize the acoustic space that surrounds them–Chernoff rightly insists that they are “actively engaged in making sense of the music.” We must enter into polyrhythm; by selecting particular rhythmic clusters, and cutting and combining them with other beats, our bodyminds generate a sense of coherent flux within a space of multiplicity, a kind of balanced line of flight that constantly criss-crosses a shifting and unstable terrain. Listening and dancing to polyrhythm, we thus tactically participate in the phenomenon of emergence, as fluid lines arise from the complex and chaotic interaction (or “communication”) of numerous smaller and simpler repetitions and individual beats.
Within the music itself, these emergent nomadic lines are mobilized by the improvisational figures introduced by the lead drummer. Playing over and against the stacked repetitions of the other musicians, the lead drummer improvises not so much by spontaneously generating new patterns as precisely cutting and splicing the beats and figures of the other drums. As Chernoff writes, “The drummer keeps the music moving forward fluidly, and by continually changing his accents and his beating, he thus relies on the multiplicity of possible ways to cut and combine the rhythms.” The lead drummer’s lines thus emerge from a space of multiplicity that constitutes the ensemble’s virtual dimension.
And what the lead drummer deploys most forcefully is the cut or the break. These intense, almost violently syncopated “off-beat” lines criss-cross and interfere with the other rhythms, pushing and pulling at the dancer-listener’s precarious internal sense of the beat. Though these assaults can be quite intense, they should not go too far: “A musician should deliver not too many and not too few offbeat accents because people can get thrown off the beat, and a certain point either their orientation to the rhythms will shift or they will begin hearing the separate rhythms as a single rhythm.”  Establishing an analogy with nonlinear dynamics, we could say that the lead drummer must maintain an open field of competing rhythmic attractors. The game is to push the beats to the edge of bifurcation without allowing them to settle into a singular basin of attraction. For listeners that means remaining constantly open to productive chaos: to the disorienting surprise of beats struck earlier than expected, or to the little voids that open up when beats are unpredictably dropped out–an experience Chernoff brilliantly likens to missing a step on a staircase.
While it’s fruitful to speak of polyrhythmic experience in the language of the dance, we should also remember that the body so mobilized may be entirely virtual. As Richard Waterman points out, “African music, with few exceptions, is to be regarded as music for the dance, although the ‘dance’ involved may be entirely a mental one.”  And I’d like this figure of the “mental dance” to lead us into cyberspace, into the simultaneously premodern and postmodern spaces opened up by the tactile yet disembodied electromagnetic beats of the Black Electronic.
Dubbing the Drum
Among the pantheon of the Black Electronic’s mental dancers, alongside such varying figures as Sun Ra, George Clinton, Jimi Hendrix, Grandmaster Flash, and Derrick May, stands one Lee “Scratch” Perry, perhaps Jamaica’s most inventive reggae producer and one of the leading wizards of dub music the mutant spawn of reggae produced entirely in the studio from prerecorded rhythm tracks. Explaining the esoteric correspondences between rhythm and the body, Perry once wielded out the roots cliché that “The drum is the beat of the heart.” But the bass, he said, “is the brain.” More than just subverting the common cultural association between bass frequencies and the “base” moves of the hips, Perry was suggesting that drums and bass make head music, with all the various resonances that term conjures up abstraction, drugs, interiority, virtual worlds. As Perry put it when discussing his preference for mixing tracks without vocals: “the instrumental is formed in the mental.”
Of course, Perry’s instrumentals were also formed in the machine, and it’s this imaginal network between the machinic and mental realms that opens up both the disembodied architectures of cyberspace and the more abstract dimensions of the drum. West Africa’s polyrhythmic ensembles can already be seen as deploying a kind of abstract machine, its enormous intensities engineered with a notable coolness, precision, and craft. As Chernoff writes, “A drummer avoids ‘rough’ beating because the precision of play is necessary for maximum definition of form…the truly original style consists in the subtle perfection of strictly respected form.” This crisp and cool sensibility informs the Black Atlantic’s unique reconfiguring of the physically alienated or “mental” labor necessary to engineer electro-acoustic cyberspace, and goes a long way to explaining why, as Andrew Goodwin perceptively notes, “we have grown used to connecting machines and funkiness.”
And I’d like to trace this connection back to the analog 1970s, when Jamaican producers and engineers created dub reggae by manipulating and remixing prerecorded analog tracks of music coded on magnetic tape. Dubmasters like King Tubby would saturate and mutate individual instruments with reverb, phase, echo and delay; abruptly drop voices, beats, and guitars in and out of the mix; strip the music down to the bare bones of drums and bass and then build it up again through layers of distortion, percussive noise, and electronic ectoplasm. Good dub sounds like the recording studio itself has begun to hallucinate.
Dub arose from doubling–the common Jamaican practice of reconfiguring or “versioning” a rhythm track into any number of new songs. At a time when “roots” reggae was proclaiming a literally religious mythos of folk-cultural authenticity, dub subtly called it all into question by dematerializing and eroding the integrity of singers and song. There is no original, no motherland outside the virtual, no roots that are not at the same time rhizomes remixed on the fly. Yet by improvising and mutating its own repetitions of prerecorded material, dub added something distinctly uncanny into the mix. Dub’s analog doppelgangers, spectral distortions, and vocal ghosts produced an imaginal space no less compelling in its own way than the virtual African Zion that organized so much reggae’s Rastafarian longings. And for all its unmistakable Caribbeanisms, dub’s concerns with warped analog spaces, electromagnetic noise, and technologically-mediated disorientation also recall the explorations of German progressive rockers in the early 1970s. Like the lo-fi analog electronic experiments of Can, early Klaus Schulze, and very early Tangerine Dream, dub too is a kind of kosmiche Musik. As Luke Erlich wrote, “If reggae is Africa in the New World, dub is Africa on the moon.”
But while the space of dub is certainly “out” in both the extraterrestrial and Sun Ra sense of the term, its heavy use of echo also produces a sense of enclosure, an interiority that, along with a variety of moist and squooshy effects, conjures up distinctly aquatic surroundings. With dub we do not find ourselves in the cold and rather cheesy deep space of SF soundtracks and bad hippie synthesizer music, but in a kind of “out” inner space, a liminal womb. This unresolved spatial tension not only explains the “druggy” or even “mystical” qualities of the music (qualities rooted in psycho-physiological effects that erode the experiential division between interior and exterior), but also explains why 70s dub so powerfully anticipates the virtual spaces of today–spaces which seem at once extensive and implicate (or implied), intensive and unfolded, inside and out.
While the almost psychedelic qualities of dub can be attributed to its “spacey” effects, and perhaps to the role of ganja in both its production and consumption, the heady pleasures of the music arise at least as much from its trippy polyrhythmic playa play that further unfolds possibilities latent within the reggae beat.
Strictly speaking, modern Jamaican dance music adheres to the same 4/4 beat that drives the vast majority of Western popular music. But when dub hit the scene, reggae’s “dread riddims” were already unusual in accenting the second and fourth beats of the measure and in “dropping” the initial beat, all of which produced the music’s unmistakable snaky pulse. An even more crucial element of reggae rhythms was the pivotal role played by the bass guitar. Back when Jamaica’s “sound systems”–basically mobile discos–were playing American R&B in the 1950s, the techies gave their American grooves an unmistakable Jamaican twist by severely amplifying the bass, transforming R&B’s low end into a veritable force of nature– the kind of bass that does not just propel or anchor dancers but saturates their bones with near cosmic vibrations. The rock steady music which morphed into reggae anchored the beat with the bass guitar rather than the drum kit. This deterritorialized the drums, allowing musicians to explore more polyrhythmic percussive play outside and around the main beat. As Dick Hebdige points out, by the end of the 70s, drummers like Sly Dunbar were playing their kits like jazz musicians, improvising on cymbals, snares and tom toms to “produce a multi-layered effect, rather like West African religious drumming.”
Dub translated this rhythmic complexity into acoustic cyberspace, using technology to further destabilize the beats and to stretch and fold the passage of time. While stripping the music down to pure drums and bass, they also thickened the mix with extra percussion and what the producer Bunny Lee called “a whole heap a noise.” More importantly, dubmasters introduced extended counter-rhythms by multiplying chunks of sound (voices, guitars, drums) through echo and reverb, producing stuttered pulses which split off from the main beat and generate cross-rhythms as they stray and fade into the virtual void. Dub is not strictly polymetric, as it rarely sustains such staggered apart-playing for very long. At the same time, by abruptly dropping guitars, percussion, horns and keyboards in and out of the mix, dubmasters teased the rug out from under the listener’s habitual rhythmic orientation toward the 4/4, creating a subtle virtual analog of the tripping, constantly shifting conversations of West African drums.
Quite like master drummers, many dubmasters would improvise their studio mixes on the fly. This should not surprise us, for West Africa’s polyrhythmic ensembles already anticipate the breakdown of the distinction between the mechanical labor of the recording engineer and the creative labor of the musician–a distinction that organizes much popular music production and that dub and later electronic dance music dissolves. One can see polyrhythmic ensembles as an assemblage of various distinct rhythmic “tracks” whose molecular beats are remixed, cut, and spliced through the cool mediation of the master drummer, his apparently spontaneous” and “chaotic” cuts introducing noise that becomes signal, feeding back into and enlivening the ensemble’s “total and simultaneous field of relations.”
By giving flight to the producer’s cybernetic imagination, dub created room within Afrodiasporic culture for a cyborg mythology grounded in technical practice. Here’s Lee Perry again, explaining his almost animistic relationship to the machine:
“The studio must be like a living thing.The machine must be live and intelligent. Then I put my mind into the machine by sending it through the controls and the knobs or into the jack panel. The jack panel is the brain itself, so you’ve got to patch up the brain and make the brain a living man, but the brain can take what you’re sending into it and live.”
Here we are on the imaginary border between the premodern and the postmodern, between roots and wires, an imaginary mobilised by Perry’s whole persona and astounding career. Claiming at various times to be “Inspector Gadget,” the “Super-Ape,” or “The Firmament Computer,” Perry also pioneered the use of phasers, drum machines, and the borrowing of existing records to “scratch” in a patch of sound. Aesthetically exploiting the electromagnetic play between information and noise, Perry integrated signal degradation directly into his thick and spongey polyrhythmic textures as the producer Brian Foxworthy points out in Grand Royal, “Tape saturation, distortion and feedback were all used to become part of the music, not just added to it.” Perry would also plant records and tape reels in his garden, whirl like a dervish behind his SoundCraft mixing board, and blow ganja smoke directly onto the tapes rolling through the battered 4-tracks at his Black Ark studio. As Perry told Toop about the Ark, “It was like a space craft. You could hear space in the tracks.”
This kind of surreal Afrodiasporic science-fiction also appears on the cover art of much dub. Mad Professor’s Science and the Witchdoctor sets circuit boards and robot figures next to mushrooms and fetish dolls, while The African Connection shows the Professor–significantly wrapped in European safari garb–reclining at a West African tribal dance, the jungle trees housing bass woofers and tape machines while the sacred drums nestle EQs. Scientist Encounters Pac-Man at Channel One shows the Scientist manhandling the mixing console as if it were some madcap machine out of Marvel comics.
It’s perhaps no accident that in Jamaican patois, “science” refers to obeah, the island’s African grab-bag of herbal medicine, sorcery, and occult lore. In his book on the trickster in West Africa, a study in “mythic irony and sacred delight,” Robert Pelton also points out the similarities between modern scientists and traditional trickster figures like Anansi, Eshu, and Ellegua: “Both seek to befriend the strange, not so much striving to ‘reduce’ anomaly as to use it as a passage into a larger order.” We could ask for no better description of the technological tricks pulled by the great dubmasters.
It’s a Jungle In There
While the torch of golden-age roots reggae has passed mostly into the hands of bad hippie bands, dub’s deeply technological imagination has enabled it to make a rich and multi-layered transition into the cultural science of the digital regime. Today’s “digi-dub” relies on no live instruments at all, its roots electronica whipped up with keyboard patches, computers, and sophisticated drum machines. At the same time, contemporary acts like Twilight Circus continue to make superb classic dub using all live instruments–the only anomaly being that Twilight Circus consists of a single white Dutchman named Ryan Moore. In fact, while British dub acts like Alpha & Omega and Zion Train wrap themselves in heavy Rastafarian imagery, many of them consist entirely or mostly of white Britons. I While the torch of golden-age roots reggae has passed mostly into the hands of bad hippie bands, dub’s deeply technological imagination has enabled it to make a rich and multi-layered transition into the cultural science of the digital regime. Today’s “digi-dub” relies on no live instruments at all, its roots electronica whipped up with keyboard patches, computers, and sophisticated drum machines. At the same time, contemporary acts like Twilight Circus continue to make superb classic dub using all live instruments–the only anomaly being that Twilight Circus consists of a single white Dutchman named Ryan Moore. In fact, while British dub acts like Alpha & Omega and Zion Train wrap themselves in heavy Rastafarian imagery, many of them consist entirely or mostly of white Britons. I mention this not to accuse anyone of cultural appropriation (a particularly tangled argument given the perpetual borrowings and miscegenations that characterize both traditional and modern popular music), but to indicate that the virtual logic of the Black Electronic is not rooted in ethnic facts but rhizomatically spreads through the increasingly open-ended and hybridized zones of electro-acoustic cyberspace.
As the fine British music compilation Macro Dub Infection argues in both its title and selections, dub is better seen as a technological virus, its silly putty beats, active silences, and bubbling, booming bass as nomadic codes that have wormed their way into a host of musical genres: ambient, industrial, trip-hop, techno, pop, jungle, and even experimental rock. Indeed, dub helps erode the artificial differences often erected between these musics, rendering such generic categories increasingly subservient to an open conversation between forms.
At the same time, one particular electronic contagion does stand out in its digital transcodings of the technologically mediated polyrhythms that characterize 70s dub: jungle music, aka, drum’n’bass. With its dizzying tempos and nonlinear beats, jungle is certainly one of the most aggressively polyrhythmic dance musics ever spawned in the modern West. And yet much of is generated entirely on personal computers. Distorted soul samples and rude boy taunts are layered over smooth R&B chords; giddy hi-hats and hyperfast snares teeter on the edge of collapse; machine-gun martial beats and ominous basslines liquefy your gut like an apocalyptic undertow. If dub is the studio on cannabis, jungle is the computer on cannabis and DMT.
Though a multicultural scene, jungle is still essentially the first homegrown dance music to spring directly from Britain’s black population, making it \perhaps the most significant mutation of the Black Electronic since techno originator Derrick May read Toffler’s The Third Wave or hip hop producers began to build tracks with samplers as well as turntables. While dub is one definite influence, jungle’s roots are, appropriately enough, tangled, and the following sketch drastically oversimplifies its etiology. In the early 1990s, when electronic dance music producers started whipping up the repetitive beats of techno to ungodly velocities, some folks took to speeding up breakbeats as well (breakbeats are the stimulating chunks of rhythmic surprise drawn from other records and that form the bedrock of American hip-hop). The resulting music–known as hardcore, or the more descriptive drum’n’bass–became something like breakbeat’s mutant British twin, unfurling a tactile, hacked up mix of drums and bass that foregrounded its own recombinant production like few other dance musics. Over time, the bass got thicker and dubbier, so that soon a slow ganja pace chugged along beneath the amphetamine snares; various cross-overs with the ragamuffin toasts of Jamaican dancehall MCs helped fix the name “jungle” in the public’s mind just as the music started seeping out of the underground.
Upon first encountering jungle’s maniacal tempos, one suspects that in the Deleuzian contest between chaos and rhythm, rhythm has conceded defeat. Here’s Simon Reynolds, describing hardcore for ArtForum in 1994: “Sped-up break-beats are reverbed, treated, ‘time-stretched,’ and overlaid with itchy’n’scratchy blips of sounds that evoke the mandible-rustling telecommunication of the insect world. Polyrhythms are piled on, oblivious of the ‘correct’ way to organize rhythm: a spastic soundclash of incompatible meters (funky hip-hop breaks, dub reggae sway, Latin rolls).” At the same time, jungle does resemble “correct” polymetric drumming in allowing dancers to satisfactorily hook into and pass between different rhythmic milieus nested within the same cut: one can skank to the slow bass pulse or attempt to articulate the frenetic, unpredictable multiplicities exploding up top.
While jungle’s programmed percussive samples are thickly layered, sped-up, and hyper-syncopated, in most jungle tracks they stumble across downtempo dub lines that ultimately anchor the madness. But in the hands of the music’s more aggressive and experimental creators, jungle can induce a remarkably delicious sense of disorientation, as reverbed cymbals and chopped-up snares savagely tug against the bass beat, upsetting the listener’s habitual desire to “fill in” the music with a comprehensible rhythm. The stronger jungle tracks also intensify their breaks (the passages dominated by cuts and cross-rhythms) to a degree that shatters the usefulness of the term “syncopation.” For these reasons, intense drum’n’bass produces for many listeners the same kind of disturbing confusion that West African drumming does; only instead of being threatened by the “frenetic” chaos of the “primitive”, they are threatened by the digital chaos of sampled code complexifying out of control.
In a sense then, one must “learn” to listen and dance to jungle’s complex and extremely recombinant rhythmic language. Many of the rhythmic units in jungle, such as the “Amen, Brother” sample, are generic and constantly recycled, cut and pasted across the thousands and thousands of tracks that today’s junglists crank out on their PCs and Amigas. Novelty lies at least as much in the recombinant rearrangement and pacing of these generic elements as in the generation of novel motifs and sounds. I am reminded here of Chernoff’s emphasis on the abstract precision of the many patterns that underlie West Africa drumming, and his point that “new forms are built from simple modifications of existing patterns, perhaps through the replacement of a single note.” Moreover, new forms are perhaps less important than the fresh rearrangement or pacing of received elements that everyone recognizes. As Chernoff writes, “It is the duration of time that a drummer plays a particular rhythm, the amount of repetition and the way the rhythms change, to which the drummers pay attention, and not so much any particular rhythmic invention.”
On the one hand, the junglist’s attention to the crafty assemblage of beats makes their rhythms more supple and compelling than those you find in other electronic dance musics, almost “organic” in their densely articulated gestures and “chaotic” organization. And yet one also senses that drum’n’bass is on the verge of unfolding some strange new non-Euclidian dimension, as cyborgs like Photek, 4 Hero, or Peshay painstakingly engineer an abstract space-time architecture from nano-beats that have been spliced and diced in a digital cuisanart.
Jungle shares with dub the visceral root of the bass, as well as the deft deployment of gaps and silences that stretch and rend spacetime, opening little voids that cannot help but empty us out of ourselves. But in contrast to the aquatic, resonant, almost meditative zones opened up by dub, the spaces generated by the more intense junglists emerge as a perpetually morphing array of compressed, malformed, and fractured “intermilieus.” In part this distinctive mutation in the spaces of the Black Electronic arises from the qualitative distinction between digital and analog modes of production–a difference whose effects are particularly notable in electronic music.
But the jarring hyperspaces of jungle arise at least as much from the music’s almost eschatological polyrhythms, its deployment of “heterogenous blocks of space-time” that cut across the conventional dimensions of acoustic space. Just as jungle significantly reorganizes the possible vectors and gestures of the physical dance, it radically reorganizes the “mental dance” as well, propelling us into a compressed space of multiplicity that both challenges and reflects the larger mutations in our contemporary world-space. Perhaps this is what Marshall McLuhan glimpsed when he said that “we live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums”. We are timestretched to the edge of the timeless, but a timeless that has nothing to do with the eternal and everything to do with the immanence of multiplicity.
Thanks to Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, for this reference.
 See Paul Gilroy, “The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity,” in The Black Atlantic, (Harvard, 1993), 1-40.
While I don’t want to imply that there is some black or African “essence” that persists unchanged in electronic space, I also share with Gilroy who takes the position he calls “anti-anti-essentialism”–the sense that the lived realities of culture and history act as a powerful restraint on the loopier postmodern celebrations of radical constructionism. Rhizomes are not roots, but they still conform themselves organically to the actual shapes of the land they encounter.
I will basically ignore political and sociological questions, concentrating instead on the technical, philosophical, and even science-ﬁctional aspects of polyrhythmic cyberspace, and I do so quite self-consciously. In American culture especially, black music has long carried the burden of representing the folk-cultural body, which is either demonized as “primitive” or lionized as an authentic and “natural” corrective to an abstract West identiﬁed with mind and machines. Besides eliding the fact that, as Gilroy argues, the African diaspora is actually integral to the West, this opposition tends to erase what is my core concern in this paper: the extraordinary technological dimension of modern black music’s musical, aesthetic, and even mythic imagination.
 Along these lines see Ron Eglash, “African Influences in Cybernetics, ” in The Cyborg Handbook, ed. Chris Hables Gray, (Routledge, 1995), pp. 17-28.
John Miller Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibility, (University of Chicago, 1979), 42.
 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, (Minnesota, 1987), 313.
 Chernoff, scattershot citations.
 Ibid, 112.
Cited in Chernoff, 50.
Video documentary, “The History of Rock: Punk,” PBS.
Interview, Grand Royal, issue 2, 69.
Cited in John Corbett, Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein, (Duke, 1994), 19.
Cited in Corbett, 23.
 This ambiguity can be captured in one simple query: Is the Internet exploding or imploding?
Dick Hebdidge, Cut’n’Mix, (Comedia, London, 1987), 82.
Interview in David Toop, Ocean of Sound (Serpent’s Tail, London, 1995), 113.
 Bob Mack, “Return of the Super Ape,” Grand Royal, 64.
Robert Pelton, The Trickster in West Africa (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1980), 268.
For these reasons and others, “jungle” is not a universally accepted terms, and many still prefer the more descriptive “drum’n’bass.”
 Earlier draft from author.
As Simon Reynolds points out, the jungle scene hosts such copious and rapid mutations that singling out its stars denies the collective intelligence that drives its recombinant creativity; citing Brian Eno, he says that we should speak not of “genius” but of “scenius.”
Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1962),31. The contemporary space of digital multiplicity is also generated by network computing as it shifts from centralized linear processing to a distributed and increasingly recombinant ecology of multiple processors, chunks of code, applets, and decentralized and increasingly autonomous routines. Mainframe computers like Danny Hillis’ Connection Machine can be seen as “multiplicity machines” that use a networked array of different processors to simultaneously attack problems. Many of today’s artiﬁcial life researchers, exploring the unpredictable collective properties of virtual spaces that attempt to model natural, social, and economic processings, are also concerned with the “emergent properties” generated by the complex interaction of numerous small components and simple rules of behavior.
Erik Davis was born during the Summer of Love within a stone’s throw of San Francisco. He grew up in North County, Southern California, and spent a decade on the East Coast, where he studied literature and philosophy at Yale and spent six years in the freelance trenches of Brooklyn and Manhattan before moving to San Francisco, where he currently resides. He is the author of four books: Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica(Yeti, 2010), The Visionary State: A Journey through California’s Spiritual Landscape (Chronicle, 2006), with photographs by Michael Rauner, and the 33 1/3 volume Led Zeppelin IV (Continuum, 2005). His first and best-known book remains TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information (Crown, 1998), a cult classic of visionary media studies that has been translated into five languages and recently republished by North Atlantic Press. He has contributed chapters on art, music, technoculture, and contemporary spirituality to over a dozen books, including Suzanne Treister’s HFT: The Gardener (Black Dog), Future Matters: the Persistence of Philip K. Dick (Palgrave), Sound Unbound: Writings on Contemporary Multimedia and Music Culture (MIT, 2008), AfterBurn: Reflections on Burning Man(University of New Mexico, 2005), Rave Ascension (Routledge, 2003), and Zig Zag Zen (Chronicle, 2002). In addition to his many forewords and introductions, Davis has contributed articles and essays to a variety of periodicals, including Bookforum, Arthur, Artforum, Slate, Salon, Gnosis, Rolling Stone, the LA Weekly, Spin, Wired and the Village Voice.
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