Saturday, 12 March 2011

Common - Nag Champa

I've been listening to this track a lot over the past few weeks and thought I might as well pop down a few thoughts; not anything structured, just a brief (or not so brief) glance through some lines which seem to me particularly to stand out, and attendant reflections which may be sparked off by them. Having only come to ‘Nag Champa’ recently, I can't help but view the song through several lenses – that of Miguel Atwood-Ferguson's orchestral version on the Suite for Ma Dukes album, that of the original track sampled by Dilla for the song ('Morning Order', from an obscure 1980 duo album by Hugh Hopper and keyboard player Alan Gowen), and that of the mix (available on youtube) which pairs Common's original vocals with Atwood-Ferguson's orchestral arrangement.

Given that Hopper and Dilla both died in recent years, the track takes on a poignancy it wouldn't have previously had – a poignancy, a nostalgic, sentimental quality which suffuses the Atwood-Ferguson album and gives it its emotional weight (for instance, listen to the way that the eight-minute version of 'Stakes is High' becomes near-epic, stretched out in length and intensity not just by the way that it takes a full three minutes for the song proper to begin, but by the weight of Dilla’s memory, by the crowd who have come to the concert to pay him homage, by the self-consciously ‘classic’ status of it all – treading the right side of that fine line between simple rehash/ retread and true tribute, true memorial). The downside of this is the sense that Dilla's death has made it impossible to criticise his work – ‘the good die young’, etc – and he's become a virtual saint within the hip-hop community, as if invoking his name is a placeholder for talking about 'quality' hip-hop, music that doesn't go along with the 'guns/ hoes/ bling' or cheesy naffness of mainstream rap. Of course, his own attitudes with relation to women, or at least, certain attitudes that appear to be expressed in lyrics (though I'm aware that over-identification of the voice in the song with the voice of the singer in all aspects of their life, outside the music, is something which can land us in hot water; and which is a problem with much hip-hop misunderstanding, perhaps) were not exactly exemplary. And in this song we get Common’s own casual homophobic toss-off: “You couldn't hang if you was a poster/
Posin like a bitch for exposure/ It's rumours of gay MC's, just don't come around me wit it / You still rockin hickies, don't let me find out he did it.” One might think here of Amiri Baraka’s almost obsessive use of the word 'faggot' (just look through any sample of his mid 60s-mid 70s work), compared to which Common’s “gay MCs” seems fairly tame – and yet the seemingly milder slur 'gay' in fact hurts more, because, unlike ‘faggot’, the word is not in itself an insult, merely a description; it only becomes a slur through intention. Baraka seemed to pour a whole lifetime of rage and despair and fire into the word ‘faggot’, not only on behalf of himself but on account of the racial and political injustice of sixties America, and on account of his own disillusion with the quietism and 'drop-out' attitude of the bohemian artists with whom he had previously associated – a lifetime that did not, of course justify him using the word, and did not disguise the fact that his homophobia was genuine (along with anti-semitic, anti-italian, anti-irish and anti-female tirades) – but a lifetime that seems trivialised by Common's casual, off-hand dismissal of what might more normally be called “wack MCs” as “gay MCs” (particularly given the fact that ‘Nag Champa’ comes a few decades after ‘Black Art’ et al, and might be expected to know better). It appears that C has since modified his views, most notably in the song 'Between You, Me and Liberation', in which he describes his shock at a close friend's coming out; but even so, there's still some way to go – one might, for example, reasonably take offence at the way he likens his friend's revelation to the revelation that his girlfriend has been raped by father and to the loss of a relative to cancer. Still, I suppose, it’s a start.

OK, so far, so unsavoury: but over to Dilla again, his voice on the song’s chorus like a ghost, fuzzed up and hazed over with echo, not 'amplified' by electronic treatments but made strange, other, honeyed-haunting. Yet there are also moments where the untreated, original recording of the voice itself sounds through – fragile, not ‘weak’ exactly, but not 'strong' either (in the sense that Dilla is not normally a 'singer'); it has a delicate quality to it, accentuating and counter-pointing the underlying, under-running sample, emphasising its melodic qualities as Common emphasises its rhythmic qualities during the verses.

And that brings us to the rap itself, Common really entering the 'flow' (yes, that word) of things, entering into things proper after an initial psyching up: "Yeah baby the be". The place/space established by setting up a particular mood, vibe; nag champa as a device for mood alteration – ashram incense, fragrance, Dylan and the Dead using it as part of their concert rituals (a complete sensual experience - sound, sight, smell, touch (vibration)) – also, "When I was working on Like Water for Chocolate, I would go to Detroit like two to three times a month. When we would go to Jay Dee's basement we would always burn nag champa incense, that's where I got that title from"; so "the place to be" is the place where the music was made (the physical place that Common was in when he recorded the words of that intro), but also the place where you the audience will listen, using this as make-out music or chill-out music or just simply as music). Into the rap: dividing up three words to emphasise the final "-ting" at the end (like a modified version of the 'ping' sounded at the end of a line when writing on an old-fashioned typewriter) – "Excite-ting, enlight-ning, invite-ting" - an invocation, invitation in, a slight brag, a self-description, a calling card, but also a kind of manifesto: music and lyrics that will seek both earthly excitement and spiritual enlightenment (teaching), and will embrace an audience to whose concerns they speak, with which they chime. "I'm writin' shit that I feel, [I'm not a faker, I'm not just doing for the cash, this is not just a pose] Raps are Black Steel In the Hour of commotion, the motion of Com": here a nod to Public Enemy, and perhaps the song's best wordplay, free associated from the PE reference, as '[Black Steel in the Hour of] Chaos' becomes its synonym 'Commotion', and the motion of that word moves forward into Common's own name (alias), so that this becomes *his* (finest) hour ("in the hour of the motion of Com"), *his* movement, *his* flow; moving with the times, moving in them, even against them (against the commercialisation or 'corruption' of hip-hop); moving with others (co-motion) - and now moving to the next line, rhythm in the music dictating rhythm in the speech and also shifts (movements) in the meaning of the words, hip-hop's alliance of beats and speech leading to free associations/connections that reach beyond themselves, beyond initial intention or mere propositional statement, despite the fact that, on first listen, raps can sound very straight-up, accessible on first hearing (‘what you hear is what you get’). There's something more subtle at work here, however – allegiance to rhythm and rhyme almost working against allegiance to 'sense': "Raps are Black Steel In the Hour of commotion, the motion of Com/ Is like that of a ocean, devotion cuz I'm / The Earth, Wind, and Fire of hip hop" - from Public Enemy (musical forebears, inspirations) to the speaker himself (Com) to movement/(e)motion in metaphorical comparison to oceans and elements - which brings us back to musical forebears, beyond rap this time to Earth Wind and Fire, connections sliding smoothly and suggesting something exciting about a mind's movement, a mind's play. The rest of the verse is more straightforward - a nice routine on the ‘common’ "time is money" catchphrase ("time is money/ The mind is funny, how it's spent on getting it") - and then we're into the chorus (already discussed) for the first time, the words of which are, I now notice, again about *movement*.

New verse: “this never-ending battle to please” – the difficulties of expectation, now Common’s moved “from bashful to asshole to international”; play on ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ – “Niggas, magazine writers, MCs/ Who request hot shit, I freeze/ And tell em where I was rose, we always said cold” [the need for a scoop, the pressures of being a ‘spokesman’ or merely the pressure to give a juicy tit-bit of gossip deflected back to talking about the ‘hood’, the origin, ‘where I come from’, grew up, a suggestion of allergy (rose cold/rose fever)]; a few lines on, another nod to influences, predecessors, forebears (“You not gon' respect self, at least respect the heritage”), with the attendant responsibilities of being a major artist –(“Affect the lives, the spread of wealth and the merit is/ I realize what I portray day to day, I gotta carry this”) – a well-placed line break “I gotta carry this/ And beats” [as well as the somewhat grandiose notion of being a spokesman, the realisation that rapping skilfully – not simply speaking polemics over beats, but allowing word and music to reciprocally mould each other – something physical, mental, at this moment, now – “And beats, rhymes and life is where the marriage is”]; now onto religion – “Picked up a fallen angel on the path that I MC / Familiar voice, come to find out the angel was me” (this is, for Marc L. Hill, “a Common who is deeply spiritual but no longer looking to the sky for help”; and the couplet reminds me of Saul Williams’s ‘Wine’, which, coincidentally, I wrote about around this time last year: “So never question who I am, God knows/ And I know God personally/ In fact he lets me call him me / In fact he lets me call him me.”)

What else? Next verse: “My refrigerator poetry's magnetic like ultra” – poetry as down-to-earth, domestic, about life and its niceties, as well as all the grandiose boasts and metaphors and claims; poetry (rap) as moveable, alterable, not fixed but as spoken utterance, existent in the moment of speaking rather than on the page; words as physical things, a kit of objects which can be moved around, re-arranged. (It would be interesting, in fact, to know Common’s writing process, given the way the lyrics’ flow is very much determined by the particular beat they ride.) “Got my eyes on the tiger, eyes on the prize” – wonder about the shift from ‘of’ to ‘on’ – he’s watching the tiger, rather than watching with the tiger’s eyes, as per Rocky III… - “Eyes on the thighs of Mary J. Blige” – hmm, well, the succession of long assonant “I’s” match the “-ting” triad from earlier in the song in terms of delivery, at least. “My verse depth is that of a baby's first step / Or the old lady who died and the nurse wept” – voice as coming from a spectrum of experience, infancy to age, joy to sorrow, the poet as speaking from a collective standpoint, speaking from beyond themselves. Parallels between the spoken and written, words once more as physical objects– “I flow like cursive writing” – water (remember “the motion of Com / Is like that of a ocean”), ink, liquid. And finally, the repeated “We be that, we be that / Afrodisiac, disiac” – does this reveal the whole song as a sexual boast? …as another instance of African-American male pride, those boasts, from the 60s and onward, of sexual potency, which at once played on and fell victim to the old racist notion of the black male rapist/stud – that Black Arts notion of the strong, virile Blackman against the weak white ‘faggot’? But we note that the subtitle to the entire song is, in fact, “Afrodisiac for the world” – we move out to a global scope (‘Common’ ground (noting, on the way, that Common’s alias at once suggests his ‘realness’, the material poverty of his origins, and implies his uncommonness, the fact that he stands out from the crowd)), and we think on the way that hip-hop’s use of sampling increasingly traverses borders, cultures, musical and geographical, in a manner akin to, say, Ghedalia Tazartes – think, for example, of Mos Def’s ‘The Ecstatic,’ or Nas and Damian Marley’s recent collaboration – the way that it elides, glides, jars, brings together, smashes and mashes and mixes up – Madlib’s production on ‘Madvillainy’ (from Sun Ra to Steve Reich’s ‘Come Out’ (itself an early example of ‘sampling’/looping) to 40s educational programme and superhero parody) – Public Enemy and The Bomb Squad – the kaleidoscope of samples on the Beastie Boy’s ‘Paul’s Boutique’...No wonder the record companies started cracking down on hip-hop’s poly-vocal/-phonic/-morphous appropriation, its free treatment of authorship, its opening up and out (“invitin you and yours to my openness”…


Full Lyrics to ‘Nag Champa’
Marc L. Hill - Common, 'Like Water for Chocolate' (review)
Eric S. - Homophobia and Indie Rap
'Suite for Ma Dukes' EP

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