Black History Month: Music – Don’t forget the roots
What does a Calvin Harris DJ set on a beach in Ibiza have to do with a 1940s gospel choir in Alabama? And what does a punk band at Glastonbury have to do with the image of a young man playing a guitar at midnight at a railway station in 1920s Mississippi?
Well, the answer is ‘everything’ and one would not be possible without the other.
As a musician with a particular interest in history, I noticed that over time all musical genres start to converge into one path the further you look back. These ‘branches’, no matter how far apart they seem to begin with start to look more like each other the more you follow them towards the trunk of the tree.
I make Drum and Bass music. ‘DnB’ has a huge underground and mainstream presence worldwide, but particularly in the UK and Europe. Recently I witnessed my music ‘going off’ at an event, a couple of thousand people dancing to the DJ up front who dropped my track. The audience was largely white and so was the DJ – as am I. It crossed my mind that despite this demographic that I was witnessing, the history of the music was largely founded upon the Black experience, Black identity and Black resilience.
DnB evolved from the Jungle scene of the mid-90s. Jungle was considered Black music and came about when DJs in London took early 90s rave music, sped up the tempo and added drum loops – often samples of Black funk drummers from the 1960s and 70s. They added huge sub basses under the beats which were, along with the MCs who worked the crowd, reminiscent of Jamaican ‘sound system’ culture. Although a long way from its raw Jungle roots, this distinctive style of breakbeats and huge basslines is still the foundation of the music today. DnB in essence is Black music – or a derivative thereof.
If DnB came from Jungle music then it is only a short step back to the House Music that preceded this. The familiar pounding 4/4 groove was created by DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy in the early 1980s in Black and gay nightclubs in Chicago and New York. It was the soundtrack to a community of people finding refuge and escape from discrimination by dancing all night to this new sound. Innovative DJs used Disco music, Philadelphia Soul and Euro Disco coupled with newly available drum machine technology to create a hard-edged, hypnotic dance groove.
House’s roots in 1970s R&B music has its own seeds in 1960s Motown (groups like the Supremes and the Temptations), Soul (James Brown and Wilson Pickett) and Funk music (Sly and The Family Stone, Earth Wind and Fire). RnB has undergone many musical style transformations but has always remained at its core Black music – from Big Joe Turner in the 1940s to Destiney’s Child in the 00s. Why did all these musical genres suddenly spout up in the first half of the last century? And why in America?
Nothing exists in a vacuum, but there are some definite moments we can point to. In post-Civil-War New Orleans, a surplus of Army band instruments were left behind by soldiers which were picked up by newly freed slaves who tentatively began to add their own styles to the popular tunes of the day. Here, Jazz was born. Meanwhile throughout the south, but mainly in the 200 square mile area of Mississippi known as the Delta, men and women who worked the fields in the long hot days used songs to keep their spirits up and sometimes communicate covertly with one another. Post slavery, many found themselves still tied to the land via sharecropping and although technically ‘free’ their lives were anything but. They were targets for unlimited discrimination, exploitation, and violence. These struggles manifested themselves in the blues, producing the first star singers of the genre like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey in the 1920s and the first of the great Bluesmen like Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Following the First World War, Black migration to the northern cities produced a harder, electrified sound. These influences, together with the sounds of the gospel choirs and country music inspired a teenager called Elvis Presley to start performing a hybrid style which soon became known as rock and roll. From this we get every kind of rock music we recognise today – punk, metal, grunge etc. The seeds of all this great music were undoubtedly planted in the Black experience in the southern United States.
And You Don’t Stop (Brand New Roots)
In a small area of New York City, an economic downturn hit a vibrant working-class neighbourhood and transformed it into a ravaged ghetto with high crime rates, drug use and unemployment. The residents of the Bronx in the 1970s found themselves living amongst a mass of burnt-out buildings, neglected infrastructure and underfunded or non-existent public services. The teenagers of the day did not have the resources to go out and buy expensive musical instruments, but what they did have were turntables and records which under pioneers like DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash created a distinctly unique musical form and culture which came to be known globally as Hip Hop. What began as the expression of resistance for the Black community in crisis now exists as the most commercially viable music in the world.
So, it’s worth remembering whether you are listening to rock music, hip hop, or dance music, where that music came from. If you follow the leaves back to the tree, you will find the genius of innovation and resistance pitched against discrimination and oppression.
The great music we enjoy today is born of this.
Ben has been an employee of the University for nearly 15 years. He creates music under the artist name Lateral.
Equality, Diversity and Inclusion
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