Friday, October 2, 2009



"Young dictionary make words make sense." - Lil' Wayne

We are accustomed to what I will call a grammar of reason. As the grammar of language directs the combination of words into intelligible sentences, the grammar of reason directs the combination of ideas into more complex forms (we may recall the lessons of our instructors on the composition of an essay-- introduction, thesis, evidence, evidence, summary, conclusion). The ordinary practice of language reifies this grammar of reason, which in turn represents a Master Order, an authority which dictates where it is permissible or polite to draw relation between ideas. Those who cannot adapt to this Order are considered mad.

Hip-hop proposes a language system entirely other, a liberated ontology unconstrained by the traditional grammar of reason in which ideas may be associated by relations forbidden to the logic lexicon of the Master Order.

At an elementary level, this ontology functions on a referential logic, drawing connections along the lines of:


("Lyrics is weak like clock radio speakers" -- Genius/GZA)


("Girl you be the bomb/And Bobby be shellshocked" -- RZA)


("Walk a road of a great length too long to measure/My Clan make me rhyme like D-Banner under pressure" -- GZA/Genius)

Hip-hop is preoccupied with the intricacies and malleability of language, unfolding then reconstituting and recontextualizing words and phrases to form new meanings. This is expressed in form such as:

Double Entendre
("Recognize the black cat with the nine lives/Get up off me nigga it's bad luck to cross me..." -- Jay-Z)

("Young dictionary make words make sense/Then I make cents make dollars..." -- Lil' Wayne")

("Your firearms too short to box with god..." - Talib Kweli)

Word Deconstruction
("I'm so like a Pip/I'm glad it's night..." -- Andre 3000)

("We only increase if everything is peace/Father you see King the police" -- GZA/Genius)

This preoccupation is also expressed on a purely sonic level:

("Drink a Heineken as we go inside the mind again/Never minding men dropping gem/Can he shine again/Most definite/Let this be my last will and testament/For the pessimist/Exercise for the exorcist" -- Method Man)

("Loaded four-fours on low/Where the cheese at/Fresh of the jet to the 'jects/Where the G's at?" -- T.I.)

("So you act dumb like uuuhh duh/And the drummer boy go pa rum pum pum pum" -- Missy Elliott)

The style and practice of this language system may be characterized as "flow."

This alternate language/reason is not without precedent. Hip-hop's place in the continuum of black oral traditions is widely discussed (more on this in Thesis II); one also finds a resemblance to various styles of Modernist prose, be it the Cubist language of Gertrude Stein or the bugfuck stream-of-consciousness favored by William Burroughs.

However, in the instantaneous line-by-line thought-to-thought context of hip-hop (seen distilled in the mode of the freestyle), this language attains a form uniquely its own. In skilled execution, the effect is surreal and utterly mystical. As the rhyme unfolds, unsuspected parallels emerge, unexpected relationships are revealed; here, a hidden order of things is illuminated, a glimpse of a pattern beyond the veil of reason.

I originally envisioned an illustration to accompany this piece, an adaptation of Paul Klee's "Angelus Novus" decked out in ballybucks and a diamond grill wielding an intimidating ghetto blaster; however, for fear of compromising my pseudo-academic pretensions with such unfettered silliness, I have resisted the impulse. For now.

Thesis II coming soon.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


The mission of the exploitation film, it seems to me, is to fix upon some aspect of culture and distill from it that kernel of danger and thrill that designates it forbidden territory yet charges it with an almost irresistible allure. These films would eventually become known for their excesses during the golden age of grindhouse cinema in the late 60's and 70's, gleefully channeling the libertinism of the counterculture era (and eventually the grim social vision of its demise), but the roots of the movement can be traced back to the sensationalistic cautionary tales of previous decades.

Samuel Fuller's foundational work predates the exploitation age, but his in morality-plays-cloaked-in-genre-films we find a precedent for what was to come in both style and social vision. Fuller's sensationalism is charged with the anxiety of the post-WWII/early Cold War period, a creeping panic that the social order is unsound and may give way at any moment to savage chaos.

In 1963's Shock Corridor, the chaos agent in question is the dread science of psychology. The premise is this (and if this ain't a hook, I don't know what is): to solve a murder at a mental institution, overambitious reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) feigns insanity to be committed to said asylum where he can investigate from the inside. If all goes according to plan, he'll crack the case, get the big scoop, win a Pulitzer, and get back to his burlesque dancer girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) in no time at all. Of course, things never go according to plan, and Barrett finds his own sanity in question.

From the outset, the film's attitude toward psychology is supremely skeptical. The discipline as practiced by the doctors is essentially a bureaucratic meat grinder, performing ham-handed diagnoses in broad strokes of pseudo-science mumbo jumbo, guiding patients through a series of absurd and grotesque treatments (dance therapy, hydrotherapy, shock treatment).The primary purpose of the asylum seems to be containment; if there is any rehabilitation going on, we do not see it.

The characters regard psychology with similar dismissal. To Barrett, a fine avatar of the 1950's Let-Men-Be-Men American male archetype, psychology is no more than a gimmick, and his interest owes only to it being "what people buy." His girlfriend's position strikes closer to the film's sensationalistic tenor. "A man can't tamper with the mind!" she proclaims. "Their sickness is bound to rub of onto you!" To Cathy, meddling in the workings of the mind is forbidden, unholy; once the dark waters of the consciousness are stirred, they are liable to come spurting out in a geyser of madness, shattering the ever-so-fragile equilibrium of the personality.

In fact, Shock Corridor takes this notion quite seriously. Beneath the surface skepticism toward psychology and psychoanalysis, we find at the film's heart much more powerful belief. We observe the sway of the subconscious over individuals, and in Barrett's investigations even witness the power of psychoanalysis in practice.

Fuller's madmen seem to share a single syndrome: they have become unstuck from the social continuum and are lost within the spheres of their own desire and trauma. The main setpiece of the film is the sterile white hallway of the asylum where the lunatics are allowed to congregate. To the mad, this blank passage becomes a fantasmal space, a nexus of dream, a bare stage upon which the fantasies of maniacs may be enacted, given cinematic flourish by the score and camera work. Here the Communist defector may become a Confederate hero, the bullied black student may become Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, the nuclear scientist may become an innocent child.

Barrett's sleuthing consists of integrating himself into the fantasies of the witnesses and attempting to lead them toward moments of sanity during which they may disclose crucial details about the case. The technique, you may observe, is effectively a variation on the talking cure, and indeed it proves successful. In each case, Barrett guides the patient through their fantasies toward moments of cathartic break, represented by the use of color stock footage (the film is in black and white) depicting far away places and cultures. By leading them through a mosaic of personal, cultural, and racial memory, Barrett reconciles the patients with their worlds and their "true" selves, allowing them to offer testimony before slipping once again into madness.

The film also plumbs the complexities of Barrett's own consciousness as his sanity begins to crack; the doctor's diagnosis of the reporter's ostensibly phony ailment ("a culmination of internal sexual conflicts") may not be so far off. At the heart of Barrett's troubles, I claim, is an anxiety regarding his girlfriend's fidelity. Early on in his lockup, she appears to him in a dream, manifesting as a phantasmal siren, sing-songing to him, "You made me be alone, Johnny. And I have the right to find another Johnny." His crisis is one of potency, and it eventually undermines his sense of agency and ego. (This anxiety also emerges in a humorous moment as Barrett wanders into the ward of Maenad-like nymphomaniacs. "Nymphos!" he exclaims to himself with alarm as he is beset by a ring of buxom beauties. Another golden moment in cinema history.)

The film is an equally marvelous viewing at its surface sensual level, filled to the brim with expressive framing and rich, sonorous noir language ("My yen for you goes up and down like a fever chart" is a particular favorite. That's a pretty slick thing to say to your shorty, by the way, so gents take note).

Anyway, thanks for taking a gander at my new blog. I'm going to try to update here once a week, and I'm thinking the next entry will be a look at Ol' Dirty Bastard's "All In Together Now." Stay tuned.