A Rational Conversation is a regular column by writer Eric Ducker where he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
Last week Disclosure released their new album, Settle to much acclaim. Indeed, psyched reviews abound! Much of the appeal stems from the fact that the young English sibling duo of Guy and Howard Lawrence that comprise Disclosure are clearly students of the history of dance music beyond their years – particularly the sidelined subgenre U.K. garage; in fact, their resurrection of that sound has become a top selling point for Settle.
While some pundits are already declaring Settle the dance album of the year, is it perhaps more of a pop album? And really, what’s the difference between dance music and pop music anyways? Oh jeez, here we go. To think about how we should be thinking about Settle, Ducker chatted with Rich Juzwiak, a staff writer at Gawker who has also contributed to The Village Voice, SPIN, This American Life and The Washington Post. He was also previously an arts writer for The Daily and co-authored the book Pot Psychology’s How to Be: Lowbrow Advice from High People, an extension of his video series with Tracie Egan Morrissey on Jezebel.
Eric Ducker: How did you first discover Disclosure?
Rich Juzwiak: I downloaded some of their stuff randomly. But it wasn’t until Jon Caramanica’s show review last year that I really paid attention. That really made me listen to them and get excited for what they were doing.
ED: What did you find exciting?
RJ: Production-wise, they are very clean. They seamlessly synthesize their influences, but at the same time aren’t exactly breaking new ground. So it’s really more about strong pop songs in the dance music clothing.
ED: How do they line up in terms of the type of stuff you usually listen to?
RJ: I certainly pay attention to the big, electronic/dance event albums; and this is one of them. In general, I love house music. I have since I was, like, 12. And Disclosure reminds me the most of deep stuff I listened to as a kid – Masters at Work, Tony Humphries and others. They remind me more of garage in the original sense of the phrase than in the U.K. garage sense.
ED: You called Settle an “electronic/dance event” album, but do you think that’s the best way to understand it? Is it maybe a pop/R&B album? I’m curious if we’re all looking at this album through the right lens.
RJ: Were Inner City pop or Detroit techno? Is Lady Gaga just another pop diva or the face of dance music’s mainstream resurgence in the U.S.? Is soulful house more soul or house? It’s difficult to draw specific boxes like that. However, I will say that Settle definitely falls on the pop side of dance music. My primary complaint is that it doesn’t knock hard enough. The four-on-the-floor beats are pretty polite; it reminds me of Robyn in that sense, although I think she’s more guilty of giving the impression of dance music to make pop. Settle is a little deeper, and certainly more concerned with dance music history.
ED: My thinking is that, for the past few years, people have been talking about dance music’s explicit influence on hip-hop and pop and R&B. Likewise, Settle feels very much like a pop or an R&B album, yet it’s still being introduced to American audiences through the channels of dance music. I don’t know if that’s because of marketing, or a lack of understanding from music listeners, critics and so on, or if that’s how Disclosure themselves want to be perceived.
RJ: All of that is very slippery, but the sense that I get is that a lot of critics haven’t taken dance music seriously until now – so when a solid album like Settle comes along, it’s THE BEST and IMPORTANT. But dance music has always been pop music. Its point is to reach as many people as possible, and not just that, but physically move them. And look at Madonna. Reggie Lucas produced some tracks on her first album, which is a post-disco work. Is “Lucky Star” a dance song? Sure. Is it a pop song? Absolutely. Settle is a great relic of its time, though: it’s a nice reminder that something with populist leanings can be loved by critics, and that pop and dance are inextricably bound. What makes it feel more pop than dance to you?
ED: I still have the bias that dance music, which as you’ve discussed is a flawed term per how I define it, is fueled by the desire to make new sounds. It should push what instruments and computers and technology can do. I think Settle sounds very familiar. And that’s not a knock on the final product. It’s a really good album, and I love plenty of things that are incredibly reminiscent of older things. So it’s tough for me to look at like, “This is what the new sound of dance music is,” when to me it’s more like, “It is interesting to hear pop music go in this direction.”
RJ: I think the opposite has been true. The Chicago house guys were just trying to make disco. They were just trying to replicate what Frankie Knuckles was spinning at the Warehouse, and what Ron Hardy was doing at the Box. It was their technological limitations, ironically, that made them break ground.
ED: I don’t think that attempt to sound new is always conscious, but there is an inventiveness that can come with reinterpretation. And as you said, it was the limitations and the workarounds and the experiments that created something different. And I’ll admit that, a lot of times, trying to make new sounds results in really boring music or unlistenable music.
RJ: I definitely agree that there is no invention with Settle. In that sense, it does have the treading water nature of pop, i.e., “Let’s see what we can do with this stuff people already like!” That’s an important exercise, but a different one than what you’re talking about as an ideal.
ED: I don’t want to make it seem like I’m not impressed with this album, or think it’s lacking. What I’m ultimately saying is that I want more people to hear it because I think lots of people will like it because it’s poppy, and shouldn’t be shunted out of the mainstream.
RJ: It is a solid, enjoyable album.
ED: They could license the hell out of it to commercials and trailers. And they should. And they probably will.
RJ: I’m interested to see what kind of legs it will have in the U.S. I doubt it will spawn a Top 40 hit, but it seems like anything goes with dance music’s popularity these days. Two months ago, I would have never predicted that Daft Punk would go Top 5.
ED: Do you think it would be more likely that it would have an impact on the charts and mainstream radio if all of the vocals were handled by Howard Lawrence, the younger brother, rather just on the song “F for You”? Is that “featured vocalists” aspect a stigma? Or have we moved past that with David Guetta and now Daft Punk?
RJ: If anything, features make things more commercial. I mean, that’s Hip-Hop 101 – but it’s not like U.S. teenagers are gonna drop everything to listen to something featuring AlunaGeorge, as much as they should. “Jessie Ware’s on that track? I just must hear it nowwww!” Just from what I’ve observed (and this is not a product of a scientific survey), a dance track is more likely to be popular if it has female vocals, so if anything, the guests will help more than hurt.
ED: Not that pop and R&B albums are made with one credited producer these days, but hypothetically, if Interscope had somehow convinced Disclosure to scrap all the vocals on Settle and give them all to one particular female singer who already had a following, how do you think it would do in the pop landscape?
RJ: I still think it would be a hard sell. Maybe Daft Punk have loosened things up, but this is deep, moody stuff. There aren’t drops; it isn’t nearly as rude as pop dance music is. That these aren’t block waveforms of electro shriek works against the album on a commercial basis. But maybe this will help nudge things in a deeper, more dynamic direction.
ED: I can see an older pop star, and by older I mean late twenties, hearing a song like “Latch” and telling their label, “I want to do that.”
RJ: That song is massive. And that hook is amazing, yeah, but U.S. radio has never experienced something so shuffle-y. I would love it, though. I mean, Settle is kind of saying, “Those weird, scary, niche sounds? They’re not so scary after all.” It feels like a gateway in a big way.
ED: Disclosure is playing the Hard Festival in Los Angeles this summer, and I’m curious if what they do will be not aggressive or intense enough for that crowd, which definitely is getting younger and younger.
RJ: I was surprised to see how into Boys Noize the kids were at Electric Zoo last year, but he’s a lot more aggressive. Still, it does seem like there is a certain open-mindedness that maybe Billboard isn’t reflecting.
ED: I agree. It doesn’t seem entirely regimented or totally codified.
RJ: One thing that does make this particularly pop is its cleaning up of dance music. It’s very blue-eyed. That includes the Disclosure boys and their vocalists, who are predominantly non-black.
ED: That’s interesting. I hadn’t really looked up all the vocalists to see what they look like. Plus I don’t think the group or any of the singers have been in any of the videos.
RJ: Right. There’s a lot of image manipulation involved that is Daft Punk-like.
ED: Would you connect them to the blue-eyed soul tradition?
RJ: Yeah, I think so. Though the vocals aren’t as try-hard as what we’d normally classify as blue-eyed soul. There isn’t a lot of over-compensating melisma here. At the same time, this is a bunch of white people making black music. People don’t really think of house music as black music, and I’m a lot less familiar with British forbears, so maybe there is a tradition of whiteness there from the start. But yeah, I don’t think that the extremely clean nature of everything on Settle is a coincidence exactly. Or if it is, it’s one hell of a coincidence.
ED: Observing U.K. garage from afar over a decade ago, it seemed like it was a racially mixed scene, both in terms of who was making it and who was listening to it. Then again, I always assume that everything in dance music started among a non-white community.
RJ: Definitely. The roots of disco and house are gay black and Latino men on both sides. U.K. garage did seem more mixed. I think that Settle is barely U.K. garage, though. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Settle is user-friendly to the point of being whitewashed.
ED: What do you make of “When A Fire Starts to Burn,” which starts the album, and is built around the sample of what seems pretty obviously is a black American man talking?
RJ: Yeah, sampling black culture is what Disclosure does, but I don’t condemn them for this. The argument that people not be influenced and act accordingly by certain parts of the culture that are only avoidable by will is just so backward and boring. I just think it’s funny that white dudes made a whitewashed album that’s still good! I mean, I’ll take this over The 20/20 Experience any day.
ED: Can you clarify what you meant when you said earlier that Settle is barely U.K. garage?
RJ: Just that this is barely kissed with a garage influence. Their snares are nowhere nearly as in-your-face and irregular. The bass drum, too. “You & Me” is the only real 2-step track, though you can hear elements of U.K. garage in “Stimulation” and “Voices.” It would be really ballsy to make an actual U.K. garage album; Disclosure are too polite for that.
ED: Do you think people who are calling it garage have their reference point off and it’s more indebted to house music? Or do you think it just doesn’t commit fully to any of those sounds?
RJ: It’s mostly just house, four-on-the-floors equally measured out. The vast majority of what’s here is that. But I like that they work in elements of U.K. garage! That’s a nice change. It’s awesome that “You & Me” was a single, too.
ED: Because they were willing to bring elements of U.K. garage to the mainstream, or just because you like it?
RJ: I just don’t understand why U.K. garage had to go away! Styles come in and out, but it seems particularly dead even compared to jungle, and I find it to be such an enjoyable genre. That Sunship album, Is This Real, is one of the best, most uplifting dance albums of all time.
ED: So even if Disclosure isn’t really a U.K. garage act, perhaps with all the connections people are making and the influence that is there, maybe others will go back and actually start making U.K. garage again.
RJ: Right. Again, right alongside its pleasurable qualities is this album’s status as a potential gateway. To me, those things are neck-and-neck in terms of its importance.
Walking into room #3 at Harry Pearson’s place in Sea Cliff, New York – the original home of The Absolute Sound magazine – proved a turning point in my life: until that fateful day in 1993, I had never heard the sheer magic that can be created using two audio channels until that day. I had nothing to judge it against, no frame of reference, and nor did I care to. As the music washed over me, I walked around the room, wondering how the hell these giant loudspeakers – $150,000 Genesis 1s – were creating a three-dimensional soundstage in front of me. I could discern where first and second violins were, the horn section, and so on. The experience was like watching a giant movie screen, in 3D. It was so intense, it actually became a visual experience. From that day on, I’ve been chasing great stereo sound like a drug. And incredibly, some of my most intense listening sessions have occurred with not speakers, but headphones: in particular, my Audeze LCD3s.
High-end audio is a wonderfully strange world, but it’s also a small one, and many of us audiophiles know each other. So full disclosure: Alex Rosson, CEO and co-designer for Audeze, is a close friend. None of this, though, can change the fact that Audeze’s LCD3 headphones (and the LCD2s before them) have, after twenty years in the hi-fi and music industries, presented me with sonic territory to explore that I never even thought possible. How could I not document these revolutuionary experiences? The truth is, there are millions of headphone users out there, but most of the cans flooding the market don’t even approach the magic that Audeze provides. At 45 ohms, these aren’t the easiest headphones to drive, but they’re not nearly as difficult as the spec might imply. It depends on how loud you need your headphones to be, but even the HRT microStreamer, a tiny headphone amp/DAC combo drives the LCD3s without issue. That’s a big bonus, as some low-impedance headphones prove unforgiving when it comes to amplifier power. However, I don’t think Audeze’s clientele – people who are buying $2000 headphones – are worried about getting a decent headphone amp. If you can afford them, you probably need them.
I almost can’t say enough about the Audeze LCD3 headphones, and how transformative my experience has been with these sonic marvels. I’ve experienced things with my LCD3s that have completely changed my view of the potential of personal audio playback. Before I heard the Audezes, I considered headphones as, say, tools for DJs or the recording studio; other than that, they were merely a way to carry my music with me wherever I needed to go. After living with the LCD3s for nearly a year, however, I’ve come to trust their accuracy completely. Sound nuts? Well, Audeze’s growing number of brand ambassadors – including Grammy-Award-winning artists, producers, and engineers – also trust their accuracy enough to to mix with them. One of those gentlemen, legendary producer/engineer Frank Filipetti, told me that he uses them to mix on the road, and about one third of the time in his studio. (I’ll be interviewing Frank soon about his experiences with the LCD3s.) Frank always told me that he hated headphones, but I had a feeling he would understand the significance of these cans from a technical perspective. I was right: the moment he put them over his famous ears, he got it. They’re just not like any other headphones that I’ve tried – and if you’re a regular “Sonic Satori” reader, you know I’ve tried more than most. I put my trusty Sennheiser HD800s high on the list of headphones I’ve tried. Hell, I own a pair, so that tells you how much I love them. The LCD3s deliver a far more dynamic performance than the HD800s, however, and have a much greater ability to connect me to the music emotionally-and let’s not forget about their insane soundstaging. (Yes, I’m using the correct terminology for the effect I’m describing.)
Soundstaging and imaging are not the most important things in sound reproduction: the LCD3s’ ability to recreate the real time and space of concert halls on classical recordings, is unparalleled. Many of us have been hearing that for decades on loudspeakers, but imagine a pair of headphones giving you that sensation! It’s not easy to comprehend, and certainly wasn’t for me before I experienced it. These are the first headphones that have, on numerous occasions, tricked me into thinking I was listening to my rear-channel speakers! On none of these occasions was anything else playing-only my LCD3s and my E.A.R. HP4 headphone amp, plus the CEntrance DACmini ahead of it. If that doesn’t tell you what you need to know about their imaging capabilities, I’m not sure what else to say. It’s wild: they actually project an image around your head instead of simply firing the music into the middle of your skull. That’s what big speaker systems do, and what most headphones just can’t pull off. Do the LCD3s load a room like your loudspeakers? Of course not, but it’s frightening how close they get at times.
Listening to the Audeze LCD3s is just so unlike the common headphone experience, you really need to hear it to believe it – and perhaps study their innovative engineering, too. I’m sure that the reason for their sublime imaging and transparency can be attributed to the advantages of planar magnetic transducers over traditional dynamic drivers. (By the way, if you want to read a terrific technical review of the LCD3s, check out Chris Marten’s review in Playback) I could attempt to summarize the differences in these technologies, but Audeze does a far better job on their website:
Planar transducers are fundamentally different from conventional dynamic drivers. They use a flat, lightweight diaphragm suspended in a magnetic field rather than a cone attached to a voice coil.
I often relate my experience with the Audezes to my time spent listening to Magnepans, which are legendary floorstanding planar magnetic loudspeakers. Maggies exhibit a window-like transparency and have excellent detail retrieval; when set up optimally, they also disappear into the room. Getting a loudspeaker to disappear as such is not easy. When you manage to get your speakers out of their own way, it’s partly the result of their transparency and detail; headphones don’t disappear, but if they’re designed well, you can get just as lost in the music and forget about the technology as you can with an expensive loudspeaker system. I prefer equipment that doesn’t remind me that I’m experiencing a facsimile of the real thing: with the LCD3s, I can go to far more places than I can with my full stereo setup. I love the experience of a bad-ass stereo system blasting sound waves at my whole body, but just knowing that I can have something close to that when I’m not at home is a brave new world.
I was up all night a couple of days ago, listening to my LCD3s with my Macbook Pro/Amarra rig as the source and the CEntrance DACmini going into the E.A.R HP4 tube headphone amp. The sound was spectacular, as usual: the velocity of the lower and mid-bass while listening to DROKK – a wildly cinematic, synthesizer-driven collaboration by Geoff Barrows of Portishead and Beak and Ben Salisbury – proved so exciting, I must have listened to the record twenty times. The spaciousness was sublime, too. Considering the fact that much of the DROKK album is electronic says a lot about the LCD3s’ capacity to reproduce dimensionality, i.e. the aural space between instruments. With the LCD3s, many of my most cherished electronic recordings, like Aphex Twin’s I Care Because You Do and Swayzak’s Snowboarding In Argentina, jump out at me: their crazy sounds ripple as if on an audible pond. There is also space to be discovered in them, too: these records are so dynamic that it’s a challenge to listen to them, but with the LCD3s, I usually I listen to them three or four times in a row. If anything, that’s the mark of an engaging sound system.
Another key to extended listening is comfort: this extends to, in the case of headphones, their fit. Fit matters a great deal when it comes to headphones. If you’re using an over-ear model, for example, you want it to make a good seal in order to be dynamically effective. The large leather pads on Audeze headphones prove very forgiving when it comes to fit. My LCD3s have Audeze’s “leather-free” super suede headband, which I prefer to the leather original because of its heavier padding. The headphones also feel so much lighter on my head than they did with the leather headband. It’s not that they felt heavy before, but I didn’t realize the difference until I tried the alternative. With the fit dialed in, I can listen for hours on end. (In addition to the components I’ve already mentioned, the following pieces of gear ended up in the reference system for this review: the VPI Traveler turntable and the Unison Research Simply Phono tube phono stage. This little system is glorious. I’ve skipped meals and lost sleep because of its hypnotic effect.)
Some consumer products level cultural boundaries-financial and social status, geography, politics, things that consume us as much as we do them. I fell in love with hi-fi because it stripped away all the bullshit between me and the music. I lived (and still do) for the wide-open spaciousness of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon and the spirit of my generation’s angst and rebellion in Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” When I first heard a large-scale high-end audio system, I knew I wanted to be involved in this world forever, either on the audio or the music side. I’ve dreamed of owning an obnoxiously large, jaw-dropping reference system since I was eighteen years old, and after all this time, my home system is not too shabby. With the Audeze LCD3s, however, I can take a killer reference system with me everywhere I go. Thanks to their sturdy travel case, I’ve listened to music through them all over, including beachside at Hualalai in Kona, Hawai’i! I would sit on the lanai overlooking the ocean after sunset, Burial’s first LP, or Nosaj Thing’s Home ; for sunrise, I often picked Brian Eno’s LUX EP.
Cranking Burnt Friedman’s Secret Rhythms in that context provided another revelation: because the LCD3s are open-back, with no noise cancellation, I couId hear the waves smashing against the sand while the wide-open tribal soundscapes of Friedman floated all over the porch. My reference headphone system as at times literally reduced me to tears. That rig, with these headphones, is achieving something I seek in music systems but rarely experience: emotive transference. “Special N,” a track on Mogwai’s latest Les Revenants LP (the soundtrack to a French television series) got to me over and over again through the LCD3s. The song is a gorgeously subtle instrumental pop ballad that makes me feel so good that, whenever I hear it, I want to cry. I will never forget those listening sessions.
As well, the LCD3s achieve such a natural tonality, sometimes it proves difficult to grasp: through them, the haunting subtlety of Tori Amos’ delivery of the lyrics of “Icicle,” say, proved jawdroppingly realistic. An audio designer doesn’t achieve this level of sonic integrity by accident, or by copying someone else’s product. That’s why Audeze LCD3s remain the trendsetters in high-performance headphones today. I never saw this coming – not this level of quality in music playback, not the kinds of experiences I’ve had with the Audeze LCD3s. I know that the world of headphones has produced more potential hi-fi converts than ever before, but people still need to experience something vastly different from their everyday experience, something that shakes them out of their overstimulated, Twitterized comas.
Headphones currently remain embedded in our lives like never before in audio history. We use them to talk on our cell phones, to listen to our music, at home or on the go; kids use them while playing insanely realistic videogames. They’re everywhere, so why not create a high-end class of products that people might use every day? To this end, Audeze has raised the bar so high with the LCD3s that they may have created their own product class. That’s the ultimate goal for any designer/manufacturer. There are already a few companies selling magnetic planar headphones that look just like Audeze’s original LCD2. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.
I don’t think I can identify the sonic signature of the Audeze LCD3s. I say this because, when I listen to them, I’m not concerned with the headphones at all. I even find myself listening to records I’d forgotten about, pulling them off the shelves to experience them all over again; I’m rediscovering things I missed in albums that I thought I knew backwards and forwards. I listen to Burial’s 2007 Untrue LP weekly; when I try a new headphone amplifier or DAC with my LCD3s, I can discern the sonic differences instantly. They connect me to the music so deeply, I always feel like I’m hearing my records for the first time – a result that is partly based in physiological research. Indeed, Audeze’s earcups even show the company’s attention to detail and knowledge of anatomy. Most companies just give you a circular pad that doesn’t aim sound at your ear in a natural way, which your brain immediately perceives; Audeze’s cans, however, direct the sound of the transducer into your ear at an angle, like a continuation of the outer ear. Similarly, there’s something almost intangible about the speed of the transient attacks of the LCD3s. They produce crystalline, ear-numbing bass; Distortion proves so low, meanwhile, that I felt I was hearing deeper into certain albums and tracks than I ever had before. What I perceived was not just a highly detailed experience, but a soulful one.
Soul is the key here. There are other great headphones out there, there’s no doubt about that, but I haven’t heard any that approach this level of sonic integrity. Previously, I never considered headphones to be a way to wholly experience music; perhaps the best compliment I can pay Audeze is that I don’t think of the LCD3s as headphones at all.
“I’ve been sleeping three hours a night – it’s pretty full on,” Tom Silverman explains: it’s the final few days before the 2013 edition of the New Music Seminar kicks off on June 9th in New York City, and there’s much to be done. “It’s a million moving parts,” he adds with a tired groan. If anyone can handle it, though, it’s Silverman – the quintessential New York music business hustler, entrepreneur, maverick, theorist, and gadfly if there every was one. Silverman’s was a co-founder of the New Music Seminar back in 1980, which evolved as an outgrowth of Silverman’s activities involved with the influential DJ music tipsheet Dance Music Report. The New Music Seminar would grow into one of the world’s most influential music conferences – a hotbed to discover artists as well as debate the issues facing the music industry. In 1981, Silverman also began his namesake Tommy Boy label, which proved to be one of the most tastemaking and commercially successful imprints of the last three-plus decades: Tommy Boy helped usher in new genres with a relentless futurism – electro, hip-hop, dance music – allowing them to evolve into their most cutting-edge form.
With Tommy Boy, Silverman put out Afrika Bambaataa’s landmark, Kraftwerk-sampling 1982 hip-hop single “Planet Rock” – one of the most influential pieces of music ever released, a “Rite of Spring” for a generation weaned on drum machines, street rhymes, and turntables. Tommy Boy continued to expand minds via their signings of urban music innovators long after “Planet Rock.” De La Soul would help usher in rap’s famed ’80s “golden age” with the group’s unlikely image, sampling, and rhymes; Queen Latifah was nurtured at Tommy Boy into a budding superstar; hits by the likes of Naughty By Nature would incorporate real MC lyricism into dominant pop smashes; electronic dance acts like 808 State and Information Society would prefigure the current EDM phenomenon by decades; and in the ’90s, groups like House of Pain and its frontman Everlast would infuse rock attitude anew into hip-hop; many contemporary artists like Gucci Mane as well got their start via Tommy Boy.
That proves only a partial list of the groundbreaking music Tommy Boy brought to the masses; and while the first edition of New Music Seminar wound down in 2004, Silverman and a revised set of partners revived NMS anew in 2009 to confront the challenges and opportunities facing the music industry. Here Silverman sits down with The Daily Swarm to explicate the many firsts that defined a most singular career that’s touched all corners of music business.
The Daily Swarm: What was the first first record you ever bought?
Tom Silverman: Tommy James’ “Hanky Panky” – a 45 RPM seven-inch on Roulette Records. It was 1966: I was twelve years old, and I got it at a variety store called “Big Top” that sold candy and comics; they didn’t sell albums – only singles. I loved that record – it was great. It was a song on the radio, and I played it over and over. The first album I ever bought was The Young Rascals’ first album. They were such a big party band in New York at the time – just legendary: every local band played their songs at dances. I just saw The Rascals’ reunion in Portchester recently: Little Steven was there, wearing their uniform of knickers and a tie. It was fantastic.
The Daily Swarm: When did you realize you were never going to be a musician yourself?
My parents gave me a Magnatone guitar, and I took some guitar lessons. I’d played violin and piano before, but I actually wanted to play guitar – after I’d heard Clapton and Cream, I was like, “Forget everything else!” Besides, everyone needs to get laid, and I thought playing guitar would help! I’d go to Sam Ash and drool at the Gibsons on the wall; during college, I was really into sustain and fuzz boxes: I had a Fuzz Face and a Big Muff, and of course a Vox Wah-Wah.
The Daily Swarm: What was the first Tommy Boy release?
Tom Silverman: It was a twelve-inch single, “Having Fun” by Cotton Candy, which Tommy Boy put out in 1981. The year figured into the catalog number, which was TBA 811 – if we had more than twelve songs, we were in trouble! Ever since I saw Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” blow out of stores in 1979, I thought, “I should do this, too.” I had a friend, Mike Wilkenson, who had a subscription service that would send compilations of song re-edits to DJs. I was running [legendary DJ tipsheet] Dance Music Report, and helped him set up a label in my spare time; I learned who the distributors were, and things like that. As a test run, I put a record on the Tryon Park label: this kid Eric Neri, who was a Harvard grad, had a rap song called “Let’s Vote.” It was a shitty record – I’m glad I didn’t put it out on Tommy Boy. Anyways, one day Afrika Bambaataa came by the apartment where I lived and worked and put together Dance Music Report. He had brought this “Cotton Candy” record with him and told me to check it out. I think he wanted me to write about it; he was playing it out in his sets. I borrowed and spent $10,000 to put it out, and got $5,000 back. I didn’t make money the first time, but when I put out Tommy Boy’s next release, I had enough to pay back my parents.
The Daily Swarm: How did “Planet Rock” first come about?
Tom Silverman: Around this time, I’d been working with Bambaataa on the eight-track demo that would become “Planet Rock” at a studio called In The Red in Mamaroneck. I played it for Arthur Baker and asked if he could produce it. The rest is history. Actually, the first hit Tommy Boy had was “Jazzy Sensation” by Afrika Bambaataa and the Jazzy 5, which came out at the end of ’81; we then released it again with a Shep Pettibone remix. Tommy Boy was based on selling vinyl twelve-inches; they were crossing over from a marketing tool for DJs to the consumer. We got “Jazzy Sensation” played on Mr. Magic’s show on WHBI and sold 5,000 on one spin; it went on to sell 35,000 twelve-inches at $3.98; you don’t get that much for a song today! Bambaataa never connected as an artist, though; he was more about songs, ideas, and tracks. In a way, it was more creative working through the twelve-inch as a medium: you didn’t have to live up to an image, and were free to create whatever you wanted, from release to release. It didn’t bother me, this desire for longevity. My favorite records are one-hit wonders: if an artist has one great song, it creates the most memories – and they’re associated with the song, not the artist.
The Daily Swarm: What was the first Tommy Boy act where you felt like you’d really succeeded?
Tom Silverman: Afrika Bambaataa found Jonzun Crew after “Planet Rock.” Bambaataa liked anything that sounded like a video game, and Jonzun Crew had “Pack Jam.” We sold a couple hundred thousand “Pack Jam” twelve-inches, and the following album sold close to a million. It was a big thing at the time.
The Daily Swarm: How did the New Music Seminar first come together?
Tom Silverman: Since ’77 or ’78, the Billboard Disco Summit had been going, and was very popular – disco was so huge, they did two a year. But in 1980, disco fell off, so my partner Scott Anderson and I got together with Mark Josephson and Danny Heaps to introduce a new thing. We did the first New Music Seminar at S.I.R. Studios as a one-day event to introduce DJ culture as doing something different. We had 200 people, and I don’t even know if 100 people paid, but the buzz was great; Dave Robinson from Stiff Records did the panel the first year. Danny and Scott fell out, so Mark and I did it the second year, in a bigger space. I found a picture of the 1981 panel recently: Ed Steinberg lead it, and Bob Pittman was on it, just before he started MTV, looking very corporate in a button-down shirt. He must’ve been 27 or 28 then.
The Daily Swarm: What was the first New Music Seminar like after relaunching in 2009, after a five-year absence?
Tom Silverman: [Current New Music Seminar partner] Dave Lory asked me to do it. He got me on the right day: I was getting pissed off because no one was asking questions about what was going to replace the old music business and start a new business. I wanted to bring people together to explore what was going to happen, because the record business was not coming back. We’re still asking that question. In 2009, we had all these DIY models, where artists could do it themselves, with things like Tunecore. Chris Anderson’s Long Tail book had come out, but it wasn’t working that way; no superstars were being discovered with the backing of significant labels. With the power of the Internet, why weren’t we finding an Elvis a month? It was easier to break artists with one employee and $50 in my pocket. The tools were there, but nobody wanted to do it themselves – all the artists attending that year wanted to get signed to labels.
The Daily Swarm: What was the first music industry conference you attended?
Tom Silverman: The Billboard Disco Summit, right when we were starting DMR. Drugs were everywhere, and it was a very gay business at the time. Casablanca had one presidential suite at the hotel it was being held at, and TK Records had another. I couldn’t get into the suites, though, because I wasn’t gay.
The Daily Swarm: When was the first time you realized computers and the Internet were changing the music industry?
Tom Silverman: I was a technology freak from the beginning. As soon as I had a hit with “Planet Rock,” I bought a Synclavier [an early digital sampling synthesizer], which at the time were around $100,000. I had the first luggable computer, the Osborne, which came with floppy-disc software; I tried to create my own invoicing program on it. I was always into always into having personal computers and using them to run the business, but they didn’t change what the business was like. What really changed the business was recordable technology like the Walkman and the boombox – they made music portable and personal. I think the Walkman was a more significant development than MP3s or MP3 players. The Internet didn’t become important until there were more tools. We used to go to Central Park to hear what people would play on their boomboxes,
which would be the records that would break over the weekend. Word of mouth would start that way, like jungle drums. Now with the Internet, it’s still the same, but on steroids.
The Daily Swarm: Do you remember the first issue of Dance Music Report?
Tom Silverman: I have it somewhere in storage. DMR started out as a weekly, stapled tip sheet. It was typed; we stapled and folded it ourselves – we licked stamps and stayed up all night to write it before taking it the offset printer. Then we’d bring the issues to record stores. There probably weren’t 10,000 DJs in the world at that time, but we had 4,000 of 'em. They were really influential: radio was stodgy, and DJs opened up music for people who wouldn’t hear it otherwise. The science of how records break hasn’t changed, from 30 DJs playing a song on heavy rotation to a million YouTube views.
The Daily Swarm: What was the first time you heard of hip-hop?
Tom Silverman: Not until ’83 or ’84 – after I’d been releasing hip-hop records for two years. Before then, we called them “rapper hits.” I remember Bambaata mentioning hip-hop in 1980, but mostly they called it break or b-boy music. People don’t realize today that hip-hop back then was beyond counterculture – it was crazy, like hearing Little Richard for the first time after everything was “(How Much Is That) Doggy in the Window?” Hip-hop broke all the rules, and changed the tools; there were new dances, graffiti, scratching – and it all came out of a five-mile radius in the Bronx! What are the odds of that happening?
The Daily Swarm: When was the first time you heard Gucci Mane?
Tom Silverman: A friend of mine in radio promotion, Manny Bella, brought a Gucci Mane record in that was looking for distribution. His song “Black Tee” was making a lot of noise. This label Big Cat Records wanted to make a deal, and Gucci Mane was their main artist. When I heard him the first time, I didn’t know what Southern hip-hop was; there were a lot of subtleties to the post-crunk/trap house scene. That’s the exciting thing about hip-hop: every new artist would play something different and sound different according to their different regions and subcultures.
The Daily Swarm: How did you first discover De La Soul?
Tom Silverman: De La Soul came to us through Prince Paul, who was part of Stetsasonic and producing them. He played it, and it was pretty bizarre. It was so out there, we thought either it’s going to be huge, or nothing. It’s better for music to be that way, I think.
The Daily Swarm: How did you first get the idea to do a Dance Music Hall of Fame?
Tom Silverman: That came from me, Daniel Glass, Eddie O’Loughlin, and Cory Robbins. I was on the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and they weren’t letting dance music artists in. They didn’t consider dance music rock and roll – it was a threat to the rock elite. I tried to get Kraftwerk in, and they just let Nile Rodgers and Donna Summer in. I thought we should have a place of our own, and then the bottom fell out of the record business. It was a tough time.
The Daily Swarm: When was the first time you conceived of the idea that the music industry could be a $100 billion business?
Tom Silverman: Nine months ago, once I saw what was happening with cell phones and the mobile industry. Stopping piracy didn’t change things that much, but the music industry is still worth $23 billion at retail alone, and I think we can quadruple that if we put music in the six billion phones that are out there in the world. There are 100 million TV subscriptions at $79; there are 25 million paid Sirius subscribers, and eople are spending $120 a year on Spotify subscriptions. As well, 50 million cars are sold each year; imagine the possibilities if we bundled music with automobiles? Why wouldn’t you have music built in with every television? Most of the emerging markets never bought music – they were pirate markets – but now Brazil is exploding, and India and China are starting to break, showing music revenue for the first time. It’s easy to get the active music consumers, but we need to monetize the passives.
The Daily Swarm: Who was your first music-business mentor?
Tom Silverman: Early on, Seymour Stein. He’d come to the first New Music Seminar, and was the first guy on that level we could talk to. Later, it was Morris Levy, Ahmet Ertegun, Chris Blackwell, and Mo Ostin, with whom I did the first Tommy Boy major deal with Warners. I learned so much sitting in the office with Morris Levy. One time when I was in there, a guy called Morris asking to borrow $5,000. Morris said, “Okay, but you have to pay me next week; if you don’t, lose my number and never call me again.” His next call was to get a check ready for this guy to be picked up. It was a firm rule, but it let you know Morris didn’t bullshit. It was what it was: he was a shrewd businessman, and it was impossible to say no to him. Joe Zyncyk, who was the lawyer for Arthur Baker and Sugarhill Records, told me, “When I got leukemia, Morris paid for the whole hospital for me.” He was loved music and was very generous, but also took shots. Morris was very competitive with the Jews that came from the same ghetto he did: he’d say, “Fuck Walter Yetnikoff – I make more money than Walter!” And he was the only honest guy in music. Majors would say they’re paying you eight points, when it was really five; Morris, on the other hand, would say, “I’ll give you eight points, but I’m only going to pay on four.” He leveled the playing field – they said he was a gangster, but Morris was actually honest.
Barry (The Baker) Auguste
As one of the band’s beloved roadies, The Baker served as a key insider from The Clash’s 1976 beginnings until the classic lineup’s demise in 1983; as such, he’s eminently qualified to suss out the real deal behind the myths, legends, and rumors – after all, he was there.
I worked for The Clash as backline roadie for seven years, and thought I knew where all the bodies were buried. But thirty years after The Clash played their last gig with Mick Jones at the US Festival in Glen Helen Park, CA, it seems timely – especially in light of reports that the most comprehensive Clash box set ever is to be released this fall – that an important new book has emerged that details the story of how The Clash fell in love with America, and how America loved them back. Stealing All Transmissions: A Secret History of The Clash by author Randal Doane captures an untold history, which until now has been sinfully ignored by the fans and journalists alike.
When we arrived in the U.S. in February 1979, the magic just seemed to happen miraculously, like a fairy tale. For The Clash’s debut concert in Berkeley, California, the band played to a raucous sold-out crowd of 3,000 or so, to our amazement; we thought, “Bloody hell – they get it!” It was only upon reading Stealing All Transmissions that I realized what might have been obvious: nothing happens in a vacuum, and many people in the alternative press, on radio, and in concert promotion were tilling the soil to make America a fertile environment for the arrival of “the only band that mattered.” (And yes, there were even a couple of allies at Epic, the U.S. label, too.)
If, like me, you always wondered how The Clash could become the most talked about live act from England in the space of less than eighteen months, then look no further. In Stealing All Transmissions, Doane peels the layers off a previously unknown history of the band and exposes the dynamics that allowed the band’s meteoric rise in the North America. In that context, it is as much about the valiant efforts of those figures who laid the groundwork for the Clash to break the U.S. as it is about the four musicians themselves. While we in the U.K. flirted with pirate radio as an alternative to the somnambulist offerings of the BBC, American radio was in the midst of a cultural revolution. Unbeknownst to us at the time, they helped foster the initial audience for The Clash, and helped ensure their continued success.
Stealing All Transmissions (which takes it’s title from a key lyric in the 1981 single “Radio Clash”) is unlike anything else you’ve ever read about The Clash – as well as a unique take on the early New York punk scene and the key music industry players who worked to create a fertile environment for the arrival of English punk rock in America. It is a tale of secrets and betrayals, plotting and intrigues, and includes original interviews with crucial figures in radio, music journalism, and the record industry like Robert Christgau, Pam Merly, Wayne Forte, Bob Gruen, Susan Blond, Meg Griffin, and Joe Piasek, to name but a few. Doane transports the reader on a very different journey than any previous Clash biographer, deftly weaving the maneuverings of the FM radio deejays, music journalists, and record company execs into the band’s own narrative.
In Stealing All Transmissions, Doane draws upon original interviews, archival sources, and his own coming-of-age to weave the histories of American FM radio, the rise of serious rock journalism, and the biography of The Clash into a tale of epic proportions. Throughout, Doane recounts a host of hellraising antics from freeform deejays – from streaking through competitor stations to prank on-air arrests for marijuana possession and station takeover’s complete with hunting knives and ransom demands. We learn Meg Griffin and Jane Hamburger solidified the fan base for punk and new wave by spinning discs at seminal New York nightclub Hurrah’s, where Sid Vicious smashed a bottle over the head of one Todd Smith – yes, Patti’s brother – and landed himself at Riker’s Island. The book is full of such casual asides and unpredictable tangents, piercing the heart of the culture and the industry that surrounded it.
It also fully explores the band’s disenchantment with the British music press backlash, which I remember well: as Doane cleverly sums it up, “London called, and New York answered.” While Lester Bangs was penning a landmark sixteen-thousand-word glowing endorsement of The Clash, singing the praises of Give 'Em Enough Rope and singles such as “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” the British press ran at full tilt in pronouncing the irrelevance of the band: there was the NME’s Ian Penman announcing, “The Clash is a dying myth,” along with Jon Savage’s famous quote noting “so do they squander their greatness.” In the U.S., though, the myth not only endured, but flourished. By the time The Clash returned to play New York’s Palladium in 1979, the entire music scene was primed and pumped, with the show being broadcast live on WNEW (and a photo from the event of Paul Simonon smashing his bass providing the iconic cover image of London Calling).
This secret history concludes with an analysis of how we listen to music today, and its impact on the written word. Randal Doane asks (and answers) the important question, “Could a band like The Clash emerge today?” He recalls the pleasures of LP listening, and reading the 10,000 word profiles in Rolling Stone, both of which required “a depth and devotion of attention rarely nurtured in the digital age.” The advent of digital music technology, Internet radio, and mp3’s has rendered FM radio all but obsolete and, “....the common music experience of an analogue transmission by a regional deejay at two turntables with a microphone constructing a community of listeners….” a thing of the past. Moreover, he speculates that, “the pasts of many great bands of the present era, will not be written at length, if at all.”
Ultimately, Stealing All Transmissions: A Secret History of The Clash becomes a fascinating look at a band and the entire music community which embraced it in the U.S. at a very special time in the history of rock music. Best of all, it does not assume the weight of serving as the definitive account of one album, one man, or one iconic band, and is thereby free to provide a refreshing and intelligent interpretation through its deeply specific focus. Rising above the everyday sordidness of many previous biographies, it proves a welcome and necessary addition to The Clash literary canon.
A Rational Conversation: Souls of Mischief On Their Vampire Weekend Connection and Why '93 'Til Infinity' Endures...
A Rational Conversation is a regular column by writer Eric Ducker where he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
Last week, Vampire Weekend released their third album, Modern Vampires of the City. One of the first songs from the album that the magpie-ish indie rock act premiered was “Step,” which lyrically references the title of a Run-DMC album and film, the city of Alameda, and inappropriately dressed punks at Astor Place in New York. It also borrows part of its chorus and thematic issues from “Step to My Girl,” a 1990s rarity by the Bay Area hip-hop group Souls of Mischief. Ducker got on the phone with Tajai of Souls of Mischief and the Hieroglyphics crew to get the story behind “Step to My Girl,” how Vampire Weekend came to use it, and the other unexpected places he’s heard his songs appear. Also last week, Souls of Mischief announced the summer-long Still Infinity Tour, which will commemorate the 20th anniversary of their debut ’93 'Til Infinity, and leads up to both a documentary about the landmark release and a new album due this fall.
Eric Ducker: What’s the story behind the original “Step to My Girl”?
Tajai: We recorded that song when we were still in high school; I was probably 15 or 16. The YZ sample [from “Who’s That Girl?”] of him saying, “Every time I see you in the world, you always step to my girl,” was really the impetus behind it. The sample drove it. We were at the age where we were getting into serious relationships. We wanted to make a love song, but for it not to be sappy, so we added the “I’ll beat you up if you talk to my girlfriend” aspect to it. We were kids. Literally.
ED: Was it one of the first songs you did?
T: No. We’ve been rapping since we were eight. A-Plus and I have been in the group for 30 years. That was one of our later songs as an unsigned group. That was actually one of the songs on our demo that got us signed.
ED: How did you come across the sample of Grover Washington Jr.'s “Aubrey” for the beat?
T: I don’t know anything about that. A-Plus produced it. I do know that they wouldn’t let us clear it for our first album. There were these guys who worked for Jive who used to re-work samples called Hula and Fingers, but [their version] just didn’t recapture the essence of the original.
ED: You guys famously had the same problem with the song “Cab Fare,” which sampled Bob James’ theme song for “Taxi.”
T: Yeah, same thing. The crazy part is that I saw Bob James talking about how he couldn’t let it be cleared. First off, Bob James didn’t own the sample – the TV company owned it: he did okay the clearance, but he didn’t own the sample. But I’m glad. I’m happy that both of those songs are cult classics, but when we got signed, we were transitioning between childhood and adulthood. So as a guy who was making that transition, those songs represent a period of our youth. They’re nostalgic and all that, but I don’t think they’re representative of the Souls of Mischief that was on that album. They encapsulate our pre-'93 era. I don’t think they would have passed muster on the '93 'Til Infinity album.
ED: Were there songs on the demo that did make it to the album?
T: “That’s When Ya Lost” was one, but it was called “Lost in the Maze of the Rhythm” or something. “Let 'Em Know” was a demo song, I believe. We had stuff on there with, like, Doors samples that would never clear, so a lot of the stuff on the demo never made it.
ED: Even when '93 'Til Infinity came out, there was already this legend of “Cab Fare.” Did “Step to My Girl” have a following, or did that only happen once you put the Hiero Oldies compilations out?
T: “Step to My Girl” was big. That whole demo is probably platinum. There are guys who come up to us at shows right now with a dub of a dub of a dub of that tape. In the streets, that’s what we traded in. I remember that on the same tape that I had my demo, I had the Pharcyde’s “Ya Mama” demo, I had “Jump Around” by House of Pain, I had some Cypress Hill stuff, all before they came out. They were just these things that were floating through the industry.
ED: What was the motivation for you guys to put out those Hiero rarities tapes in the late ’90s?
T: We had gone independent and were trying to generate funds to put out our first [Hieroglyphics] album, 3rd Eye Vision. They were on cassette first. We had Hieroglyphics B-Sides and Hieroglyphics Oldies. They were wildly successful, and the beginning of our website and our indie label.
ED: Do you ever perform that stuff live?
T: We’ve done “Cab Fare” live, but “Step to My Girl,” never. I don’t even think unsigned we ever did it. Both the Vampire Weekend version and our version are songs that you sit back and relax to. They’re not really energy filled. As far as our show, we kind of rock out. We might do “Make Your Mind Up” or “'93 'Til Infinity” or maybe “Oakland Blackouts,” but that’s probably as mellow as we get when we’re playing live.
ED: How did Vampire Weekend approach you about incorporating the song into “Step”?
T: It was through their legal team. Our lawyer contacted us and said, “Hey, there’s this group that wants to use 'Step to My Girl.’” We said we didn’t even own the sample, but I guess they had already cleared what they needed to clear and they just wanted to use one of my lines, or something like that. When guys from a hip-hop group want to do something with one of our songs, they just want to rap over the beat. These dudes crafted an entire new sound using elements of it, but not remaking it. That was incredible of them.
ED: Were you familiar with Vampire Weekend at all?
T: Me personally, no. But they’re awesome. I’m glad that I’m familiar with them now. What’s messed about this world is that I don’t have a television and I hate the radio, so it’s really hard to get exposed to new music. So when you get exposed to new music and they end up being fans or are inspired by your music, that’s a double whammy.
ED: Have you talked to any of the members of Vampire Weekend directly, or has it all been through lawyers?
T: We spoke to one of the guys. We’re thinking about doing a collaboration.
ED: Did Vampire Weekend tell you how they came to use your song as an inspiration for “Step”?
T: They did it humbly. Let’s just say the correspondence wasn’t all corporate. When I finally heard “Step,” it was so good; I was just happy we were able to be part of that. I’ve heard so many terrible “'93 'Til Infinity” remakes that it’s refreshing to hear something that is actually not a remake but is an “inspired by.”
ED: Have there been other unexpected places where Souls of Mischief music or influence has shown up?
T: The tie-in with the skater culture has been crazy. We got in on the 411 Video Magazine and [Plan B’s] Second Hand Smoke skate videos. That catapulted us to a whole different level. Fortunately, skaters have followed us throughout the years. We’ve got snowboarder fans and surfer fans through videos. There’s this action sports crossover. At first it seemed kind of random. But when we got on those skate videos, they were these seminal skate videos, just like our record is a seminal record for California underground hip-hop. These skate videos had guys like Jovontae Turner or Mike Carroll and they were skating in a style that was brand new. It was really a good fit. Aside from that, they played “'93 'Til Infinity” at a Warriors game recently, and that felt good, because you’ve got 20 million people watching the playoffs on TV.
ED: When Vampire Weekend first started, some people had cultural appropriation issues with them because they were a group of Ivy League-educated guys using aspects of popular African music. Does that type of stuff bother you?
T: Are artists who sample music culturally appropriating the music? I don’t really get off into that. If they had a bunch of guys in blackface singing their songs, that’s another thing. In the end, what you’re inspired by is what you’re inspired by. The crazy part is that it’s usually Ivy League educated black guys saying these things. It’s not anybody in the 'hood saying that. It’s guys that are from the same background, but are a different color, saying it about whoever the appropriator is. It’s an ivory tower debate, it’s not a debate that’s being had amongst guys that are just listening to the music. I’m not familiar with a lot of Vampire Weekend’s earlier stuff, but it’s frustrating to me to hear that. A lot of the times it’s like, “Are you mad that you didn’t find it first? Or that you didn’t come out with this style? Or are you really mad that these guys are into something that you cherish?” It’s weird. Everything is cultural appropriation: it can be done in a proper way, and it can be done in a denigrating and disrespectful way. Mostly people who really love the music and are into the music, they’re not doing it in a disrespectful way.