Culture Rover

#69 - Rockin' That Beat From Across the Street

Listening to Beat Happening box set made me think about the meaning of lo-fi as a musical aesthetic in the last ten or fifteen years of indie-rock and, yes, hip-hop. The sound of a college rock band like Beat Happening is not, in some sense, that far from early hip-hop. Yes, Beat Happening strum acoustic guitars and electric guitars and thump away on drums instead of programming Roland 808s of hip-hop yore, but their sound has got the same scratchy, end-of-the-age-of-analog, homemade feel. Some day maybe a cultural historian will be able to understand what was going on in the 1980s by connecting Beat Happening to Beat Street.

Beat Happening is anything but funky, of course, but the same could be said for a lot of early hip-hop, which rejected disco's silky grooves and funk's throb for something more mechanical and coldly robotic. There's something in the treble ranges in this music that echoes old hip-hop, whereas when hip-hop and indie-rock got into the studio, they could reach the bass much more.

Perhaps that's key to the sound: reaching for bass on equipment that can't quite get there. And vice-versa, reaching up toward the treble from deep down low, displaying vulnerability in the cracks and gaffes that result. This is especially true in Calvin Johnson's baritone, which has to be one of the most oddly expressive voices in all of indie-rockdom. Listening to him miss notes on song after song is so fun, so pleasurable, atonal melodicism, something like the dissonance of free jazz turning up in the middle of three-chord sing-alongs: Calvin Johnson as the Ornette Coleman of the 1980s college rock circuit.

That opens up a whole other line of thinking: the ways in which indie-rock lo-fi tapped into free-jazz via Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5, the Velvet Underground, Robert Palmer (the critic), and Lester Bangs.

But back to early hip-hop. Beat Happening sounds like early hip-hop that ate a bit too much granola for breakfast. They're herky-jerky, off-kilter, skidding across gravel on a used bike in an alleyway -- maybe the granola's been soaked in a forty from a paper bag -- but somehow Beat Happening is wholesome and hopeful too.

They make songs that are more drawings from a sketchbook than masterpiece oil paintings in a museum. Stripped down, but that's what makes them so enthralling. It's not so much that they are more authentic or "realer"; it's that because the songs are unfinished, they invite the listener to participate in their making. D.I.Y. for everyone, fostering connections on cheap guitar strings about to snap from overuse, hanging in there as they shed rust and throw off sparks, spokes on a revolving wheel of steel.

23 June 2005

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