Sometimes criticism completes music. This completion requires only that musicians be aware of the critical perspective. Some musicians are kindly disposed toward the idea of criticism, seeking to transcend critical categories and exceed the unstated expectations that these categories imply; other musicians turn themselves against it, provoking it by adopting a stance of irony and by gambling against their own public image by taking calculated risks. Either way, an artist’s awareness of the critical mind always affects that artist’s creative process; by going beyond the facts of the music itself and by framing it against a wider cultural context, criticism bestows definition in a way that musicians themselves don’t do on their own.
There are some corners of music that exist outside of the reach of the critical mind. For example, the critical press takes notice of female R&B singers only when they wander outside their genre’s ordinary sphere into gray areas, the realm of the crossover artist, or when their work comes prepackaged with an assumed persona or high-minded concepts (e.g., Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae). Reviews of mainstream jazz occupy themselves with dutiful, bland descriptions, congratulating the musicians’ achievements by reflex, as if it were futile to demand much more of them than thorough competence and faithfulness to tradition. And some of the less experimental corners of dance music have settled so deeply into their purpose and identity that their fans would much rather dance to the music than engage in critical reflection about it.
Sometimes criticism completes music; other times, culture completes music. Wanting to give DJ Roc’s The Crack Capone the praise it deserves, I find myself unable to express the things about it that really matter, the way it grabs me in the gut. I was introduced to Chicago juke music by a friend of mine whom I would sometimes follow out of my comfortable, over-educated North Side bubble into a world where the two of us were both foreigners, a world where my first response to juke’s furious, ecstatic drum patterns and its warped, out-of-context vocal samples was a detached, conscious appreciation, a response that I soon realized was useless and beside the point.
I have explained why I think my evaluation is worthless. Here it is anyway:
UK record label Planet Mu began taking it upon itself to introduce the world to Chicago juke a couple months ago, with the release of a 25-track full-length by West Chicago native DJ Nate, entitled Da Trak Genious. To any listener who isn’t already familiar with the underground house scenes in US cities like Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, ghetto house and juke probably sound like they owe a lot to modern dubstep. There is some reason for this assumption; progressive American and UK styles share several stylistic hallmarks: syncopated, high-tempo drum patterns; a tense, paranoid emotional posture; a bold license in the sourcing and manipulation of samples; and a general disregard for traditional Western song form and tonality. The difference is that in the UK these developments function as abstractions from tradition, intended to seem novel and shocking in contrast to the trends that gave birth to them, the trends they replaced. In the stateside underground, however, especially with the footwork-oriented form of juke represented by DJ Nate and DJ Roc, these same traits are indistinguishable from tradition, inseparable from technique.
While there’s an obvious contrast between DJ Nate’s spare, tense brand of footwork music, with its brash youthfulness and sharp angles, and DJ Roc’s, with its deceptive subtlety and broader stylistic literacy, each musician stays dedicated to footwork’s basic vocabulary: beats that obscure the steady pulse of rhythm and whose palpable tension never seems to resolve, short unmusical vocal bits that are repeated and manipulated with startling mechanical intensity, and a rigid self-sufficiency that precludes many normal varieties of listener response. Footwork doesn’t require the deconstruction of its would-be critics, and it doesn’t seek a consummation in the inner emotional worlds of its listeners. In spite of the music’s defiant complexity and relentlessly abstract syncopation, it is austere and demanding because it is, more than anything else, dance music. (It’s important to know that footwork is primarily the domain of young men who perform in a battle setting. Unlike most dance music, it’s about violence, not sex.)
The Crack Capone’s 20 brief tracks exist in just a few different modes. There are traditional footwork tracks, influenced heavily by hip-hop and laden with the constant mantra-like repetition of spoken phrases: “They Can’t Fuck Wit Me,” “King of the Circle,” “Ball Em Up.” There are other tracks that apply a similar focus to a ragga- or Latin-influenced musical sensibility: “One Blood,” “Gun Smoke,” “Kill Da Bitch.” And there are others that play against the tradition’s austerity, usually through an unexpected sample quirking up the atmosphere. (Easily identified samples range from Maxwell and Michael Jackson to The Twilight Zone and Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.) At one point halfway through the album, “DJ Roc Symphony” almost steps right out of its genre, stumbling onto a classic four-on-the-floor house beat for several seconds — a tongue-in-cheek “remember what house sounds like?” — before the producer abandons the detour and returns the music to its usual forbidding complexity.
Unlike DJ Nate, who’s hardly pushing 20, DJ Roc has been making music in Chicago for the better part of a decade, having become well-acquainted with several notable DJs during his career and having become notable himself for his Juke City mixtapes. While DJ Nate tends to use his production technique like a weapon, his tracks having more of a blunt, physical effect on the listener, DJ Roc’s musical sensibility hits the listener more indirectly. Notice how “Lost Without U” turns from placid to paranoid with a menacing bass synth, abruptly, without warning, without pyrotechnics, without even getting louder. “I Make Her Say” involves two disparate samples engaging in the classic musical technique of question and answer, and for a while it doesn’t register that half of the conversation is being carried by a sample from “Poker Face.” The balance of the hushed slow-motion Maxwell sample on “I Can’t Control the Feeling” against the song’s double-speed beat sounds thoroughly natural, but the juxtaposition is far from obvious.
Despite the merciful brevity of all its two- and three-minute tracks, The Crack Capone, like its only existing counterpart, Da Trak Genious, is a tiring and punishing listen. DJ Roc offers the listener little to nothing in the way of intelligible content; his technique is the entire message, and the most appropriate listener response would be to gather with a group of footworkers and… well… footwork. But since I don’t know how to footwork, I have resorted to my usual devices: sitting in my living room and playing these tracks for my friends, watching their faces scrunch up with a strange mixture of bewilderment and disgust. Usually after a minute or so of cognitive dissonance, they are ready for me to switch the playlist back to Sufjan or Flying Lotus or whatever else I was listening to.
Self-contained exercises of technique like this supply their own criticism. They fight for definition instead of leaving it to others to provide it for them. Capone’s reality is agonistic, not expositional. There is nothing here to interpret, no meaning to discover. Juke may be fascinating when viewed against the development of dubstep, but dubstep, as a genre, is disintegrating even as we speak; UK producers are among the breed of modern musicians who are too literate to accept any stable idea of genre. To them, genre is an identity trap, not an immanent reality that demands engagement. To look to juke as a potential goldmine for future dubstep or as a hint of electronic hybrid genres to come would elevate the critical perspective above the cultural one. Such an elevation insists on a specific ideal of growth whose supremacy is built into the indie blogosphere’s overwhelmingly literate perspective, but whose values have very little to do with the world in which juke lives. I have said it before, and I will say it again, keeping in mind that I seem incapable of practicing what I preach: there is only one appropriate reaction to The Crack Capone. I will close by quoting a sample that occurs halfway through DJ Nate’s track “Free”: