Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Hate It Or Love It: Kids Today and Their Remixes

"My theme is memory...These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me." Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

Last week, I binge-watched the mini-series version of Brideshead Revisited (my dog has now seen the entire series three times in his short life), and perhaps that is what has put me in a wistful mood.  This week, I found myself listening to original songs that were later remixed into hip hop and getting annoyed with the kids today, what with their remixing and maiming originals and grumble grumble grumble.  This isn't really a post about memory, per se, because I have no memories of these songs in their original format.   But it is a post about feeling that something is missing in the present day that existed in the past, and what could be more Brideshead-inspired than that?

1) Curtis Mayfield, 'Move On Up' (Remix: Kanye West, 'Touch the Sky')

Let's start with the Mayfield:

Correction: let's start with that suit.  Wow.

Let's move on to that vibe.  Also wow.  The high-energy, the sound of the brass, the multiple layers.  What do I mean by multiple layers?  There are many different things going on simultaneously.  For instance: follow the drums, which have a driving, complex beat (it's not just drum kit here but also features congas, which adds to its depth of sound).  The horns, which are tight and brassy.  The strings, which add an important ostinato above (move on up, get it?).  Most of all, notice the tempo, because it is integral to the drive of this track.

Kanye's version:

Do you see how he missed the whole thing by slowing it down???

I feel like this is part of some ca. 2006 trend by Jay-Z and Kanye to add funky horns to hip hop (which would be a great campaign slogan for someone, possibly Hornography):

And I guess in slowing it down, there is more of a relaxed-soul classy vibe or something.  The Jay-Z video certainly implies some kind of upper-class, sophisticated, fondue-plate eating aesthetic.  But I hates what Kanye has done to the Mayfield track now, after listening to the original a few times.  Also, where did the awesome drums go?  Now the beat is far more generic.  Boo!

2) Trammps, 'Rubber Band' (Remix: The Game, 'Hate It Or Love It')

You may not know the original here, unless you happen to play Grand Theft Auto 5 (I only know this because of YouTube comments):

Outstanding.  Also, the matching one-piece suits: outstanding.

You may be familiar with the remix, which was featured on the 2005 track 'Hate It Or Love It,' a collaboration between 50 Cent and The Game:

My objection here is more subtle.  Listen to the original and count carefully.  You'll notice something during each chorus.  It doesn't fit into groups of 8!  It breaks off at 'Palm of your hand,' which is on 7, and it never really recovers.  Pretty much all dance music ever fits into groups of 8 (hence why, when you go to dance class, people count to 8).  Here, instead, it breaks in the middle.  You can follow the vibraphone part if you want to hear this a bit more clearly.  What does this mean?  I'm not sure.  I could read something into it about how the singer feels broken or disjointed or whatever.  But honestly, I just think it sounds great.   A bit of irregularity in a very unexpected place.

Of course, this is not the case in the 50 Cent/The Game version, where this irregularity has been neatly straightened up to make groups of 8.  Take another listen, I think you'll be able to hear it pretty quickly.  It even loops at the vibraphone, so you can here the repeat.  Boo!

Final tally:
Back in the day -- 2
Kids today -- 0

Monday, April 28, 2014

Ethnic drag, mimicry, and rethinking one's musical vernacular: the case of Iggy Azalea

A writer from Gawker just wrote a post calling rapper Iggy Azalea "rap's best drag queen."  For those who don't know Iggy Azalea, she's an Australian hip hop musician whose style of rap sounds very, um, American. Even though she grew up thousands of miles away from the United States in a small town, she raps in a manner similar to rappers from the South in the US. Notice in the video, "Fancy," how she pronounces the word "realest" and uses the phrase "who dat?"throughout the song. 
The author of the Gawker piece calls Iggy Azalea a "drag queen," but he uses it in a way I'm not convinced actually works. Azalea's music video isn't necessarily a performance of gender and sexuality in the way that the term "drag queen" usually implies (which he tries to demonstrate by emphasizing the use of the word "realness" in her song, "Fancy"). Instead, I think maybe the term Rich Juzwiak (author of the Gawker post) wished to express was "ethnic drag."

Being a Germanist, my exposure to the term "ethnic drag" comes from Katrin Sieg's fascinating book, Ethnic Drag: Performing Race, Nation, and Sexuality in West Germany (UMich Press, 2009).
In it, she describes how West Germans began staging elaborate "Wild West" festivals after 1945 in which citizens dressed up as cowboys and Native Americans. Why, she asks, were they doing this? Her book shows how West Germans were involved in their own culture industry of racial formations, and how they used different emulations/performances of ethnicity to try to transform their own identities after the end of the Nazi racial state. It's a complex, fascinating, and very detailed account of "ethnic drag," and why different people try to perform other ethnicities.

I think plenty of critics think of Iggy Azalea's music videos and performances as a kind of "ethnic drag," in which she transforms from pretty, blonde, Australian white girl to southern African American rapper (like T.I.). But my friend Jessie's defense of Iggy in conversation brings up some other ways to think about this: "As I understand it she has been immersed in the American hip-hop/music scene since she came to the States when she was 16. So, I guess how long must one be immersed in a culture for one to become authentic?"

Jessie asked a really great question. How long must one be immersed in a culture for one to become authentic? At what point are we willing or able to recognize that this particular form of music-making is a person's vernacular, their primary language, their native tongue?

My musical vernacular has always been and will forever remain that very loaded term "classical music." I sang a Brahms piece in a choir concert yesterday ("Ach, arme Welt, du trügest mich) like a boss. Confidently. Proudly. Happily. My brain loved it:
Do people acknowledge that this is my musical vernacular, I wonder? Or do many still assume that my interest in classical music is a "learned" or "cultivated" behavior?

What partly led me to my line of research (black musicians in Germany and Austria) was my annoyance at people's surprise when I told them that:
1. I listened to classical music. Not jazz. Not hip hop.
2. I wasn't a singer (why do people always assume black women are singers?) and instead was a classically-trained pianist who loved playing Haydn sonatas.

The musicians that I study - singers like Marian Anderson and pianists like Hazel Harrison - faced similar responses to their performances all the time: in short, astonishment. In the same way that Iggy Azalea has learned to pronounce "chase that" in an American style, Anderson sang Brahms in flawless German. What's the difference, really, between these two kinds of performances? Are we willing to label both as "ethnic drag?" Can we talk more comfortably about accepting an individual's musical vernacular, even if that might go against the norm? I think a rebuttal for many people here, though, is that it still matters who is "performing" whom. That one is a form of racial uplift (Anderson singing Schubert) while the other is a form of "drag" or descent (a white Australian girl performing hip hop).

As much as we might want squabblings about music and "drag" to go away, I don't think they will. Because these debates about authenticity and musical vernacular demonstrate that we still use music as a cultural barometer to gauge the authenticity of racial, ethnic, and national identities. The Vienna Philharmonic, for example, has been reluctant to hire Asian musicians, claiming that because they haven't been steeped in Viennese culture they therefore lack that special je ne sais quois to perform the works of Bruckner and Mozart. Insulting? Yes. Are they alone in doing this sort of weeding out? No.

In other words, what some might see as highly-theoretical debates/critiques/questions of musical identity still have real-world consequences. The comedian Retta's standup routine, in which she demonstrates how she's treated when people think she's listening to hip hop (when in actuality, she's listening to classical music) is a funny but spot-on example of this:

Anyway. I'm going to continue performing Mendelssohn on the piano and singing Rheinberger lieder in my choir. But I'm also now going to consider adding Iggy Azalea to my spotify list.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Questlove's Contemplations on Hip Hop, Week 1

Esteemed hip hop artist Questlove will be sharing his thoughts about the current state of hip hop in a series of six posts that will be appearing on Vulture.  We are lucky people!  I feel certain that his observations will inspire a number of responses and I wanted to start by offering one here.  If you haven't read the post yet, I would highly recommend that you take a moment to do so because it offers an insightful look at some of the ways that hip hop has morphed over time.

Questlove's main concern is that hip hop has simultaneously become omnipresent and impotent.  Because it is everywhere, it is no longer challenging the norms--instead, it is reinforcing them, ensuring that the top artists remain at the top and making it difficult for others to obtain the same success.  He notes that few black musicians are succeeding in any other style, which he sees as a dangerous shift.  For those who would argue that this situation has happened before--and that it will correct itself in the future--Questlove responds that hip hop, itself, will likely not survive because popular music styles tend to disappear once they start their decline.  While there are historical cycles, Questlove claims that the specific artistic forms do not come back.  The fact that hip hop is no longer conveying truths suggests that its time is over.

In some respects, history does repeat itself.  In fact, much of what Questlove is observing in hip hop did occur previously in American culture, with jazz.  And it was jazz--or at least the styles that derived from jazz--that helped lead to hip hop.  I guess you could either say the dinosaurs are dead (Questlove) or that the dinosaurs evolved into birds (my argument). 

Indeed, many of the critiques that Questlove has for hip hop now were also leveled against jazz at various points in its long history.  Today, we are accustomed to thinking of jazz as a fixed phenomenon, but in reality the term was coined only in the 1920s to describe a new style of music.  What precisely it comprised was up for debate.  Jazz brought together a number of earlier styles, most notably ragtime and the blues, both of which were typically associated with African-Americans.  For the most part, these styles had been limited to specific geographical locations since it was hard for an aural tradition to travel far before recordings became widely available.  Some areas, such as New Orleans, had further developed specific practices that were unique.  However, the term 'jazz' eventually encompassed all of it.  There were later developments too: big band, swing, and cool jazz, to name just a few.  Also free jazz.  Free jazz will be back.

Questlove feels that hip hop's reach has gone too far, spawning such concepts as 'hip hop fashion' and even 'hip hop architecture,' which has little to do with the music itself.  But I think he errs in his claim that this type of conflation is unique to hip hop.  There is another clear parallel with jazz here, since there was such as thing as 'jazz fashion'.  Significant changes to women's clothes were associated with jazz, specifically 'flappers' and the dresses that were best suited for dancing to this new music.  Were these clothes tied to some previously unknown truths revealed by jazz?  I don't think so, but it's notable that this term is linked in such a ubiquitous way.  In fact, there is an entire 'jazz age,' a moniker not yet applied to our era with hip hop.

Some of Questlove's critiques sound familiar and have been heard before about jazz.  As Ingrid Monson has demonstrated, many jazz performers were criticized for their lack of engagement with civil rights movements during the 1950s and 1960s, which led to music that was perceived as being less relevant to society.  Black nationalists also felt that jazz would help spur their movement, as Michael Hanson has shown.  Specifically, these organizers claimed that free jazz would be ideal since everyone could participate in whatever way they innately felt.  The problem, of course, was that free jazz is, you know, free jazz, and people weren't really all that into it.  They went with funk instead, then wound up disappointed when it had a great beat for dancing but little to no political engagement. 

Questlove's first article in this series brings up the question of what hip hop has achieved in its forty-year history.  As he notes, 'the music originally evolved to paint portraits of real people and handle real problems at close range.'  'Evolved' is an important term here.  Certainly hip hop did not burst forth as a means of social critique when it started, unless the soggy macaroni described in 'Rapper's Delight' is considered a 'real problem at close range.'    In fact, hip hop may have accomplished more in terms of raising awareness about the injustices inherent in the African-American situation than any previous popular style.  Albums such as Straight Outta Compton and Ready to Die did convey the challenges unique to black people in a direct and confrontational way--and in a way that jazz never achieved.  As Eithne Quinn shows, the gangsta rap that emerged in the late 1980s/early 1990s reflected a population that was actively oppressed, and these songs targeted the oppressors.  But for the most part, this socially engaged hip hop with a popular following was limited to only a small part of hip hop's forty-year history--perhaps about a decade.  This is not to say that other artists have not been creating music that is socially engaged, but instead that the albums most associated with this specific type of civil rights issues are only one part of hip hop's legacy.

It is entirely possible that hip hop will never achieve this level of insight toward the culture from which it emerged again.  But I don't see this as necessarily the death knell for this style.  The roots that jazz provided were deep and strong, resulting in countless later movements.  Funk emerged from jazz, leading to disco, which provided the ground for the first experiments in hip hop.  More likely, then, the phenomenal influence of hip hop will be channeled into new movements and approaches, which is typical for any type of popular music.  I somehow doubt that black musicians will be absent from this discussion; after all, their importance for the early influences of jazz, and several of its key transformations, cannot be overstated.  Questlove, as an artist, is justifiably concerned for the style of music that he has made his own.  As a historian/critic sitting behind a computer and with little at stake in this argument, I can afford to take a broader view.

Either way, I am looking forward to installment 2!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Great Rap Beefs in History: The Fondue Chapter

In a thought-provoking post for this blog about Nas and the National Symphony Orchestra, Kira asked, 'Are hip hop artists performing the politics of respectability in these spaces?'  This past weekend reinforced to me the fact that hip hop artists have obtained respectability, as evinced by the fact that they have entree into all kinds of 'venues' from which they were previously shut out.  Three examples will suffice:

1) Hip hop is all the freak over NPR: Yes, NPR.  The station that has long demarcated a certain higher level of radio culture--and is generally perceived as the choice for white, educated listeners, as this parody evinces: 

In the past week alone, I have listened to hip hop appearing on numerous shows, mostly in a contemplative or esteemed light.  There was the Radiolab segment discussed previously on this blog.  Jesse Thorn, on Bulleye, offered his take on Nas's Illmatic as the best hip hop album of all time.  A segment on Ask Me Another featured a version of $25 000 Pyramid involving hip hop songs, with actor/comedian Hannibal Buress providing the clues.  Evidently, NPR believes that its listeners are conversant with 'classic' hip hop, enough so that they will understand the clues of this game.  I think that NPR is correct here, but this is a bold statement about how completely hip hop has been absorbed into contemporary American culture.  Also, there is a very white rap of 'Rapper's Delight' here (at around 1:30).  The contestant even substitutes 'NPR' into one of the lines.  That's right.  There is now, theoretically, an NPR rap.

2) Hip hop at hockey: I attended Game 2 of the Tampa Bay Lightning versus the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night.  During the second intermission, as the zambonis were driving around the ice, they were accompanied by the start of Notorious B.I.G.'s 'Hypnotize.'  This is new, at least since 2011.

I cannot think of a single sport that is whiter than hockey.  When I was a kid, there would be, literally, one black player in the league at any given time, and that one guy was Grant Fuhr (there is a whole Wikipedia category for precisely this topic). 

 'Hockey music,' in my experience, tends to reflect this demographic.  Favorite styles include heavy metal (perhaps not surprisingly, this track gets played to start the third period at Lightning games) or dance music from the 90s.  Yes, it must be from the 90s.  Yes, it must be dance music.  You might be wondering what we listened to before that and the answer is organ music and Stompin' Tom Connors.  A great example that is even featured on the EA Sports 2011 NHL Game:

Biggie?  No.  I used to think that the fact you could hear hip hop anywhere was notable, but that was at bars and such.  Now that you hear it at hockey and on NPR, I am willing to declare that we have reached a new era of cultural saturation.

3) Terrible rap beefs on TSN: What is TSN?  The Sports Network.  It is the Canadian equivalent of ESPN.  And you won't  believe what Drake said this week on TSN about Jay-Z. At least, you shouldn't believe it, because it's pretty silly:

Drake claims that Jay-Z eats fondue.  From a plate.  If you can imagine.  I can't because I don't know, exactly, how you eat fondue from a plate.  It needs some kind of warming mechanism to keep it viscous, like the type traditionally placed under a fondue pot.

Let's take a moment here.  What does this even mean?  Supposedly, that Jay-Z is not keeping it real, because only fancy people eat fondue.  At least, this seems to be the general interpretation of this statement.  He has moved beyond bougie, to whatever class where you eat fondue off a plate on a regular basis.  Now, I am not, by any means, advocating a return to the violent outcomes of previous rapper beefs.  But when one side is accusing the other of fondue eating?  That seems like we have entered a new level of respectability, to go back to Kira's quote.  Drake made no claims against Jay-Z's ability to rap or produce or do all of that music stuff.  He just might be a little high-faluting for your average person.

Be sure to read this story on A.V. Club, which features some classic commentary on this particular beef.  Perhaps Alton Brown will weigh in for Team Jay-Z.  Perhaps Jay-Z will respond by besmirching poutine.  Perhaps those radio bleeps ('f******') really are bleeping out 'fondues.'  'Cheese rules everything around me.'  And let's not forget that Jay-Z has claimed in the past that he 'checks cheddar like a food inspector.'

Stay tuned for what shapes up to be the most mouth-watering rapper beef ever to go down.  Or at least one of the most respectable.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Girl Group Twerks to Classical Music In Hopes of "Bringing It Back"

The San Francisco Globe has an article out right now on a South Korean Girl Group who's twerking to Dvorak's New World Symphony. An organization known as B-Classic is seeking to "revive" classical music, fearing that it's become too static/dead. They want to give classical music the same recognition as other genres of music (pop, rock, and so on) and they've launched a competition called the Classical Comeback Video to encourage listeners/fans to submit their own music video to a piece of classical music.
I have so many thoughts. So many thoughts. But mostly: this is not okay. Can we all agree on this point? And can we talk about why this isn't ok? A few words/terms/expressions come to mind, sort of like a free-writing exercise:
1. The objectification of women
2. The imitation of black female bodies
3. Pandering
4. The misuse of the phrase "Comeback" here

GAH. I'll leave it at that for now. Share with us why you think this video is not ok in the comments or on our facebook page.
Peace out.
~ Your raging feminist/art music lover

Just how good is 'Blazing Saddles'? Even better than you thought

I am late to this party, but I recently discovered a 'Code Switch' post celebrating the anniversary of Mel Brooks' classic film Blazing Saddles (1974).  There is a great deal to say about this film, and it will probably merit its own post overall, but I wanted to demonstrate how it is not only a satire of race relations, as the post demonstrates, but also that I think it is very criticizing the 'hidden' element in Westerns up until this time.  One scene from early in the movie suffices, and it is a doozy:

(There is language.  And some exceedingly white dancing.  Go ahead, rewatch it, I know that you were laughing too hard during the exceedingly white dancing to fully appreciate it)

I think that Mel Brooks' critique here is pointed squarely and directly at the unquestionably iconic American musical, Oklahoma!  The show debuted in 1943 and was a phenomenal success (if you want to know more, I would highly recommend Tim Carter's book on the subject).  This led, of course, to a movie adaption, which appeared in 1955.  In revisiting Oklahoma!, I found that it was an incredibly weird show.  The morale of the story, to me, is that if you act 'normal' you will be accepted by society, even if you have a funny accent like Ali Hakim.  If, on the other hand, you do not, you could theoretically be murdered in a manner that the society deems as justifiable (and you will be judged for your crime through a scam trial).  There is a great deal more to be said about Oklahoma!, but the basic summary is that if you do not conform to the expectations of that society, you should probably look out.

Also, it is worth noting that the musical/film is comprised almost exclusively of white people--this was not true of the 1931 Lynn Riggs play upon which the musical was based (Green Grow the Lilacs), which also incorporated Native Americans.  Oklahoma! is a remarkably homogenous society (apart from Ali Hakim, who is totes coded Jewish, but he assimilates into this culture).  Right away, though, we see that Blazing Saddles is not.

I am getting ahead of myself, though, because we need to start with where we are: a railway building site.  Railroads are ubiquitous in Westerns, but rarely do you see who built those railroads.  The multi-ethnic nature of this group is shown right away, as there are Chinese workers (a fact that is explicitly referenced when one of them passes out from the heat and exertion) and, of course, a large contingent of African-American men.  A later line in the movie suggests that the guys in bowler hats are Irish.  Already, Blazing Saddles is more diverse than Oklahoma!  The railway is not incidental, since it also plays a key role during one of Oklahoma!'s songs:

In Blazing Saddles, when Taggert comes to ask what is happening, he asks why the group is dancing around like a bunch of Kansas City [bleeps].  I don't think that the reference to Kansas City is a coincidence, I think it is directly conjuring up this scene from a very well-known film.  Also, as is made clear far later in Blazing Saddles, the dancers in these elaborate musical scenes are often gay (naturally, this is a stereotype, but this film trucks exactly in stereotypes to debunk them).  The dancers contrast starkly with the 'rough and tumble' cowboys, who literally break the (fourth) wall.  As the scene plays out, though, there is less of a division between the two groups than is initially suggested:

The choice of 'I Get A Kick Outta You' is also a deeper satire than might be understood at first.  Of course, part of the humor in this scene is that Lyle, the supervisor, wants to hear a 'real' song for his amusement, which are really slave work songs.  But then Mel Brooks takes it a bit further with the song that the African-American singers present:

Written by nice Jewish boy Cole Porter.

What is Brooks saying here?  That it is all of these race associations are absurd.  The white guys can sing 'Camptown Ladies' (even if they can't dance).  The African-American workers present Cole Porter, but in the traditionally African-American style of barbershop.  The satire here goes in recognizing what often goes unrecognized, including the workers who are the real ones bringing the railroad to Claremont and Kansas City.  There is so much contained in this one, short wonder this movie is still such a classic!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

#Hapsburgswag: Otto Wagner and the Viennese subway system

Here are a couple of things that I know. I know that Zoe and I both love it when various figures in American popular culture declare that they'd like to "get my swag on," as evidenced by the Parks and Rec clip below:

I know that we also both share an obsession/fascination with all things Hapsburg. We both have lived in Vienna and have been exposed to fin-de-siecle Viennese culture, which is full of tangly, intertwined cultural threads and fascinating intersections between ethnicity and nationality. Fin-de-siecle Vienna also greatly encapsulates the world of the music theorist Heinrich Schenker, the man whose analytical framework for music has given us the clever gang signs we haughtily flash to the world today. Schenker's world (Schenkerz wurld?) is full of artistic innovations in architecture and crafts, experimentations in music, and fascinating intellectual exchanges on the role of art in society and the nature of man.

In another life (or possibly in this one?) Zoe and I would own a WWI-era Hapsburg food truck known as a Gulaschkanon that would serve up all kinds of tasty Hapsburg-related treats.

Anyway. Our love for this world has led to the creation of the hashtag, #hapsburgswag, which we plan to use in future posts to celebrate the awesomeness that was the Hapsburg empire. This is our inaugural post.

And to kick-start our #hapsburgswag series on Schenkerian Gang Signs, I bring you the Viennese architect Otto Wagner:
An original member of the Viennese Secession movement, Otto Wagner was a baller, y'all. He's most remembered for his work as an architect who designed some of the most famous Jugendstil (the Viennese version of Art Nouveau) buildings in Vienna. Real quick: Jugendstil/Art Nouveau was an international aesthetic movement in Europe between the 1890s-1910s or so, and it's my jam. In Vienna, Jugendstil artists like Gustav Klimt and Max Klinger *ran* that town. I'll profile them later.

Anyway. Whereas Gustav Klimt was mostly a painter and Klinger of course a sculptor, Otto Wagner built some really fascinating buildings in the city of Vienna. Here are a couple of them:

Exhibit A: The Majolica House
Located super-close to Karlsplatz, this apartment building is an excellent example of how Jugendstil in Vienna was a decorative art. Look at that ornamentation on the building!
And I am living for that balcony up there. My drag name is Rococo Baroque, after all. How can I look away from that gold ornamentation?!

In the 1890s, the Viennese government invested money into building a public transportation system which became known as the Wiener Stadtbahn (the official English translation for it was "Vienna Metropolitan Railyway"). And they enlisted Otto Wagner's help in designing many of its subway buildings. The Wiener Stadtbahn is an excellent example of Jugendstil architecture and is a good reminder as well of a time when artists worked closely with cities for the public good. In the name of infrastructure and public spaces. Imagine that.
I grew up riding the U4 line on the subway in Vienna and passed by many of Otto Wagner's buildings every day. 
I honestly had no idea who he was until I was an adult and had an odd sense of deja vu staring at some of his buildings in European history books. And now when I see them, I feel a sense of nostalgia and wonder. I was constantly surrounded by beauty as a kid.

Let me show you all some subway buildings so you can see what Otto Wagner and the city of Vienna accomplished.
Exhibit A: the subway stop Schönbrunn:
And here's the platform for it, too:
Going to Schönbrunn as a kid meant going to the zoo and to the butterfly house (which had adorable kiwi birds in it!) so obviously I loved this station very much.

Here's a dome he designed for the Hietzing subway stop:
And of course, his most famous design was the Karlsplatz subway station.
Wagner really was a pioneer of Viennese modernism. His buildings tend to harken back to ancient Greece in ways similar to other Viennese secession artists, for example. Here, for example, is the original poster for the first exhibition of the Viennese secessionists:
In this poster, Gustav Klimt refers to Greek mythology to show Athena (on the right), goddess of the arts, as she witnesses (with approval) Theseus killing the minotaur. The older practices of art that had been institutionalized by the traditional and historic Vienna Künstlerhaus were dead and a new art (the Vienna Secessionist movement) was emerging triumphant.

Otto Wagner's modernist aesthetic was certainly in agreement with other Secession artist then. Here's his 1886 villa, for example:
Moreover, like other Secession artists, Otto Wagner preached the utilitarian nature of art. Art and architecture can be decorative and ornamental, it can evoke the spirit of antiquity (in a modernist sort of way), yet it can still be functional.

What makes Otto Wagner's subway designs so interesting is that they also prove that art can serve the public. Forward-thinking, modernist, beautiful art can be integrated into daily life on a structural/infrastructural level. Riding the u-bahn in Vienna as a child and quickly speeding past subway stops like Margaretengürtel and Pilgramgasse certainly taught me that.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

All I Need To Get By is a Lexus: Authorship in Hip Hop, part two

Radiolab is an NPR show that frequently examines issues that are rooted in scientific inquiry, but expands beyond to explore culture and the human experience more generally.  Recently, one of the 'shorts' released as a podcast investigated a very different topic: the arbitration of hip hop, specifically with regard to the 2012 beef between Nicki Minaj and Hot 97 DJ Peter Rosenberg.  This argument basically boiled down to Rosenberg stating that Minaj's song 'Starships' was commercially crafted to appeal to 12-year old girls because it succumbed to the tasteless style of electronic dance music (EDM), while Minaj's reaction was to refuse to perform at Summer Jam.  Spin unambiguously labeled this as 'The Worst Beef Ever.'  Worse than Arby's, you might ask?  So Spin would suggest.  Radiolab got into some of the bigger issues here, such as whether hip hop is becoming white-washed, with the white (Jewish) Rosenberg as one of its main arbitrators as a virtue of his position with Hot 97, a New York radio station that was one of the first to feature this format.

Audience reaction to the podcast has been mixed/skewing negative from the comments posted on their site.  While some have applauded this subject as mirroring their experience (nice white kids from the suburbs finding meaning in hip hop), more critics have questioned its basic tenets.  The matter of who gets to be a gatekeeper or why was ultimately not answered, although there was something about the fact that more and more 'white' people were getting involved with hip hop.  Certainly the specter of race was present, but it remained on the fringe instead of being at the forefront (the issue of gender, on the other hand, did not receive nearly enough coverage in my opinion).

As a historian, I also felt that the idea of labeling hip hop as 'black' versus other styles as 'white' was overly simplified and distorts the reality of what was happening earlier in its history.  This is important, because it privileges artists--or, in this case, blames them for deviating from an 'authentic' style (...especially when they are girls...).  I wrote previously on the thorny issue of how to define the creative force in hip hop, a question that is complicated by the web of associations that are frequently intertwined in this music.  To claim that Rosenberg is somehow the first white tastemaker of hip hop--or even the most powerful--ignores a great deal of influence that affected the genre in less public ways.  I am not simply talking about artists like the Beastie Boys who managed to occupy a place of great esteem among fans of hip hop and even those who were not particular fans.  Instead, I would like to consider the case of the very white and very Jewish Lyor Cohen, record executive extraordinaire, and his mostly hidden yet tremendous influence on hip hop.  Cohen was, in a way, a record executive who brought hip hop credibility by establishing Def Jam and its line-up of major artists.  In a 2000 article for Newsweek entitled 'Rap's Unlikely King,' Cohen is presented as an aid to major hip hop figures, the most significant of which is Russell Simmons.  By cultivating this relationship and demonstrating a knack for recognizing talented artists, Cohen was arguably the single most powerful tastemaker in hip hop since he controlled the means of disseminating much of this music.

I feel like you can guess who Cohen is in this photo.

This same Newsweek article presents Cohen as a laissez-faire executive, one who allows the real artists, such as Simmons and others associated with Def Jam, to take care of the creative side.  Yet this benign vision of Cohen is contradicted in a 1995 New York Times article about the song 'I'll Be There For You/You're All I Need to Get By.'

According to the Times, this was the 'No. 1 Summer Song of Love,' a surprise to virtually everyone in the industry since no one had expected it to become a sensation of this magnitude.  The song got to number one in the Billboard R & B and rap charts, even hitting number 1 in the Canadian Top 100--Complex has named this duet the bets in all of 'Best Hip Hop Love Songs' (admittedly, this may be a relatively small list).  The artists were Method Man and Mary J. Blige, with her vocals providing a great deal of the appeal of this version.  Arguably, it was the more significant appeal since Method Man had released an earlier version of the song that had obtained little commercial success.

So who came up with the brilliant idea to add MJB and turn this into the 1995 summer jam?  According to the New York Times, Lyor Cohen:

It was Lyor Cohen, chief operating officer of Def Jam Music Group, who persuaded Method to re-record the song with Mary J. Blige. Cohen tells the story from the New York offices of Def Jam, the company that helped usher rap from its New York birthplace onto the global marketplace. As it turns out, "I'll Be There" started, really, as a market expander. "I didn't know the original song," Cohen says. "Everybody told me that it was this old Marvin Gaye record, and I said, 'Wow, if we could only get Mary J. and Meth together on it.' I was just thinking of making Meth bigger and more mainstream and using her as a vehicle."
Cohen pitched the idea to Andre Harrell, a former rapper (whom Cohen once managed) and the president of Blige's label, Uptown Records. Blige is an R & B diva, but not the silk-dresses-and-white-limo kind. Growing up in Yonkers, she listened to more gangster rap than Diana Ross and knew her fair share of real-life gangsters. Her first album, "What's the 411?" released in 1992, sold more than two million copies.
Harrell and Blige jumped at the collaboration. One sticking point: "Meth never wanted to do this record," admits Cohen. "He wanted to make his next record much darker."
How did Cohen convince him otherwise?
"I gave him money for a Lexus," he says.
 The narrative here differs greatly from that in the Newsweek article, where Cohen is constantly taking a backseat to creative forces such as Russell Simmons or others.  Here, Cohen is actively involved.  He made the deal to get MJB.  It was his idea in the first place solely because he wanted to make Method Man 'more mainstream,' despite the artist's opposing opinion. How did Cohen achieve this feat?  By the most commercial means possible: bestowing a Lexus to the artist. Interestingly, MJB is explicitly called 'a vehicle.'

The New York Times article shifts between various people who created this song, and its fans, such as April Aikin, who calls Hot 97 (yes, the same one) to request it.  She believes fervently in the message that it promotes, hearing in the song a betrayal by Method Man that he is seeking to repair with his love.  She, too, has experienced betrayal and to her, the song mirrors the emotions that are experienced in this situation.  Aikin, in other words, hears this song not only as an example of hip hop, or R and B, but as a greater truth, one that captures her experience in a poignant way.  But, as the article makes clear, the commercial ways that this song was altered and promoted are far more crucial to its success than what Aikin understands as its authenticity to her situation.

It's worth noting that Cohen's influence is almost completely invisible, apart from anecdotal evidence from those involved with the song or this New York Times article.  He is not adding interjections to tracks as Puff Daddy did with Notorious B.I.G. or yelling catchphrases a la Lil Jon.  Instead, he is working in the background, but in an equally influential way.  This leads me to ask many more questions about whether this was part of Cohen's contribution to hip hop or if this song and his active intervention was the exception.  I suspect that it was more the rule. 

I do feel that Radiolab missed the point by focusing on such a recent--and perhaps ultimately meaningless--example of how race can collide in hip hop.  This story was part of a larger article that recently appeared in the New Yorker by Andrew Marantz, where Rosenberg comes across as even more of a self-promoter.  He is the white kid, he is the Jewish kid, he is 'trailblazing' the way for 'real' hip hop.  But as the case of Lyor Cohen shows, this is peanuts compared to what you can do when you control the label.  Then you gain the control to create these objects and mold them as you want.  In cases where your vision goes against that of the artist, all he needs to get by, as it turns out, is a Lexus and a vehicle.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Ben Folds and Sir Mix-A-Lot are the latest to get into the orchestra game

So Ben Folds debuted his piano concerto with the Nashville Symphony about a month ago. And the Nashville Ballet also hosted something called The Ben Folds Project:
You can check out an interview with the pop-rocker here.

And Sir Mix-A-Lot is going to be performing with the Seattle Orchestra in June:
Many thanks to Keane Southard for pointing out the fact that Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey) performed with the Brooklyn Philharmonic in 2011, too.
This is officially a thing, y'all. And we have a lot of work to do here at SGS headquarters

Monday, April 14, 2014

Khurch of Kanye

We recently learned that the Kardashians have what is, essentially, their very own church.  While we were mildly surprised to discover this fact, we were even more surprised that Kanye has not taken over this whole operation and named it the Khurch of Kanye.  However, we feel that this is inevitably on the horizon and we at Schenkerian Gang Signs want to be prepared.  So we have culled 10 Kommandments, made up primarily of Ye's deleted tweets.  Now we also know why he deleted them all: so that he could reissue the ten most important as gospel.

Incidentally, if you missed Josh Groban performing Kanye tweets, you should listen to this before reading the Kommandments:

THE TEN KOMMANDMENTS (with kommentary):

1) “I'll say things that are serious and put them in a joke form so people can enjoy them. We laugh to keep from crying.”

Here Kanye encourages his followers to find a way of finding the 'jokes' in life.  Life is so serious that otherwise we would cry.  It is incumbent upon the followers of Kanye to instead find joking ways of expressing serious ideas.

2) “If you admire somebody, you should go ahead and tell them. People never get the flowers while they can still smell them.”

Here Kanye borrows from another (lesser) prophet of his time and encourages us all to YOLO--in fact, this quote has been misattributed to Drake.  In the Khurch of Kanye, you only get one chance at this life, so you should live it to the fullest by sharing flowers with those closest to you.  That way you will bring joy and happiness to the world, plus everything will smell a little better.

3) "Do you know where to find marble conference tables? I’m looking to have a conference…not until I get the table though."

Followers of Kanye must be precise and meticulous in all details.  After all, is there any point in having a conference without marble conference tables?  Surely that would be a conference in joke form (see Kommandment 1).

4)  "I ordered the salmon medium instead of medium well I didn’t want to ruin the magic."

Is this magic?  No, of course not.  But we should follow Kanye's model and seek the magic in the mundane for lo, even salmon can be magical when prepared medium.

5) "You may be talented, but you’re not Kanye West."

This Kommandment crosses over from the more traditional Judeo-Christian ones, for thou shalt have no other gods before him.

6) "I hate when I’m on a flight and I wake up with a water bottle next to me like oh great now I gotta be responsible for this water bottle."

Responsibility can be seen as a challenge and a burden.  You should not take on more responsibility than is your due.  For truly, it is the job of the flight attendant to take away the water bottle, and not Kanye (or you).

7)  "I just threw some kazoo on this bitch."

This Kommandment should be understood as a metaphor, of course.  What that metaphor means remains opaque.

8) "Sometimes I get emotional over fonts."

Fonts are not merely decorative.  They inform what we read, how we read, and--in this day of electronic communication--our entire perspective.  Fonts should not be chosen haphazardly and, indeed, the choice of Comic Sans is grounds for ex-communication from the Khurch of Kanye.  Choose your font wisely, for your font is your avatar in written form.


Listen closely to each and every sentence that Kanye imparts.  You cannot predict what he will do or how he will finish his thoughts.

10) "Ever since I was at preschool I had little kids following me around. The teacher just said I was a natural born leader. But I’m always going left until everyone is going left, then I’ll go right again."

You should follow Kanye in all that he does, but keep a close eye out, for he may dodge right when you are expecting him to go left.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Hip Hop Musical Work: Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy, and Authorship

With this recent announcement, P. Diddy morphed back into Puff Daddy, and what better way to celebrate this momentous occasion than reconsidering his role in producing the works of Notorious B.I.G.?  This topic will be the subject of at least two (maybe more) posts, particularly how we view the role of the producer and his relationship with the artist--or perhaps, if these two roles should be separated.  In fact, it is a complex problem that, I think, can be understood in a number of ways.  While this situation is more common to the world of popular music, which depends heavily on collaboration, I would suggest that older notions of the artist and work continue to predominate--and that there may even be parallel situations in classical music that have caused difficulties for scholars and performers alike.

This post will consider the role of the producer more generally and how these roles contribute to the work.  In a future post, I intend to look more closely at specific tracks from Ready to Die and analyze what exactly Puff Daddy does on them--but honestly I have not had the time or energy to do that.  So let's start with producers as a general phenomenon and go from there.  Actually, let's start by making fun of one particular producer, Lil Jon.  I feel pretty confident that readers of this blog are familiar with this video:

(Ed. note: I also feel quite confident that readers of this blog are familiar with this parody of Lil Jon, but it really is super funny when watched immediately following a video with Lil Jon.  I think that the only possible way that this sketch could have been better would be if after receiving his ticket, Lil Jon had yelled, 'LET'S GO.')

The humor here lies in the fact that the only obvious audible contributions by Lil Jon are these little, short phrases that are ultimately throw-aways and seem almost meaningless in comparison to what Usher and Ludacris do (and the pimp cup.  Let's not forget the pimp cup.  If you want your own, they are available on Amazon).  But without Lil Jon, would the title of the song be rendered as yellingly throughout?  Doubtful.

While I kid somewhat, Lil Jon here is more like a rousing DJ, a person who typically yells a variety of lines to the crowd to get everyone pumped.  Lil Jon takes on that role at the end of the video, when he gives out a series of dance steps to perform--this part often gets cut for the radio/club edit of this song.  In essence, then, he is closer to a DJ Kool in his contribution:

Is this great art?  Maybe not.  Does it have a beat and make you want to dance around?  I would submit that indeed, it does.  And that is the purpose here.

But what we are not witness to, in the Lil Jon example, is his actual production of creating beats, mixing the sounds, and putting the whole together.  This is significant, because there is a disconnect between his self-stated contributions (which include on 'Yeah,' 'Okay,' 'Let's Go' and other quick phrases) and what he has actually done for this track.  We hear Usher sing (and in the video, see him dance).  We hear (and see) Luda rap.  We hear Lil Jon yell 'YEAH' and see him walking around with a pimp cup--there are no intense scenes of him in a studio selecting beats, putting them together, and mixing them.  While those who are aware of the intricacies of making this kind of music would undoubtedly appreciate the contributions of Lil Jon within this process, more popularly, he becomes reduced to the parody seen on the Chappelle Show.

There is perhaps no better producer than Puff Daddy in terms of adding 'Yeahs' to a track (there are, in fact, multiple 'Yeahs' by all three artists--Puff Daddy, Biggie, and vocalist Total--in the first 20 seconds of this track):

In this case, Puff Daddy is far less in the DJ Kool mode of rousing the crowd and instead seems to be some kind of Biggie echo to the verse.  However, his contribution was vital for making this track palatable for radio and this was the first hit single from the CD.  This is no mean feat.  Many of the tracks on this album were in no way suitable for radio, in terms of language, subject matter, and even sound.  In fact, it was Puff Daddy who changed 'One More Chance' from a track that verges on X-Rated (and is on the CD) to the remix that most people are familiar with today:

The original track

The remix, aka the one you know

These are, ostensibly, two entirely different songs, and this example may even call into question what constitutes a remix in the first place (there are a few shared lines, but very few).  Here is where the problem comes in, for me.  What are we valuing as Notorious B.I.G.'s contribution here?  Is it the verse?  If so, what does it say that the original verse is almost wholly absent in the remix?  Because surely that must have, to some extent, been the influence of those around him.  And if it is, then that leads to the question of, ultimately, who authored this track.  Maybe the guy who loves yelling 'Whoo' in the background (he also did in 'Juicy') is the real creative force here.

In a piece that reminisced about the creation of this album that appeared in the March 9, 2004 issue of XXL, the various contributors to Ready to Die (and writer Adam Matthews) characterized Puff Daddy's contributions in a number of ways (from this point forward, Puff Daddy is PD and Notorious B.I.G. is NB).  While Matthews credits PD with providing the vision for this production, he also labels PD as perhaps the first 'overbearing executive producer to hip-hop.'  This characterization infers that Biggie's art was compromised by what PD did on the tracks, even though the success of the album was highly dependent on these precise songs.  In his discussion of the track 'One More Chance, producer Digga also remembered PD as apart from the rest of the crew, a person who changed the atmosphere when he entered the studio:

Puff was in my ear every 10 seconds in that session. When me, Big, Cease and Klept and some of the crew was in the studio it was all good. But once Puff came on the scene everything got tight. At the time, Puff was still learning about production and he wanted to show that he knew something about music. He wanted certain arrangements. And I was looking at him like, “What the hell is this guy talking about?” We’d listen to him for half a second, then we’d be like, “Yeah, whatever.”
Digga's anecdote suggests not only that PD was new to the business, but that he was less knowledgeable than those already working on the track.  The commercial success of the remix, however, suggests precisely the opposite.

In his discussion of the track 'Juicy,' which got to #1 on the US charts, producer Jean 'Poke' Oliver gave credit to PD for identifying Mtume's 'Juicy Fruit' as a good sample and seeking to make a more radio-friendly track for the album.  If you are not familiar with the Mtume video, I must insist that you familiarize yourself, because it is something else:

Poke also recalls that NB felt he was working in a style that was not natural to him in creating this track:

Big thought it was a popcorn record. He wanted to make all gangsta records. But Puff knew at the time radio wasn’t into that gangsta rap stuff. Big was like, “Yo, this guy is trying to make me an opera singer.” But Big was going to do everything that Puff asked him. He was at least going to try it. Once it became a hit, he realized: “These are the records I need to make.” When you get into this game you want to be a hardcore rapper, but those records only go so far.
 (Ed. note: an opera singer?  Paging Renee Fleming, again).  Again, this calls into question how we should view this work.  Of course, the lyrics should be credited to NB.  But would this track exist without the influence of PD?  Would NB have achieved the same level of success?

Lord Finesse, who also assisted with the album, suggests that without PD's contributions, there would not have been the same level of artistry:

When I first worked with Big, he was as street as you can get. You couldn’t get any more street than what Big was rapping about and what he was bringing to the table. But him and Puff were both growing at an incredible rate, between Puff being at MCA getting ready to go to Bad Boy, and Biggie just being able to absorb what Puff was sending him like a sponge. Biggie watching and learning Puff was like Payton and Malone, ya know? Puffy dishing it and Biggie capturing and scoring, dunking. That combination was incredible.
Puff was at a point in his career where he was growing at an enormous rate; he had Craig Mack, and he’d just come off Mary and Jodeci. He was ready to show the world. He was able to sculpt Big to not only be an underground artist, but to be well rounded. To not just dunk, but be able to finger-roll, crossover dribble, to be the best player he could be in the game. And Big learned it real, real quick! When Ready To Die was almost done, Big had all the raw street incredible songs, and Puff said, “Okay, you got to do what you wanted with the album. Now let’s do what I want to do with the album.”
Big was like, “Puff said to do this, so I’m going to do it. Puff let me do what I want to do, so I’m going to do what he wants too.” Because of that, putting his ego to the side, like, “I’ma try this,” that gave him the edge. And after that, he tried everything and it all worked! It was crazy.
The basketball simile here that compares Gary Payton and Karl Malone to PD and NB is one of the most generous in this article.  In this sense, PD is working with NB to set him up to score points; they need each other to succeed, and could not replicate the same success on their own.  I like this version much more than the image of the overbearing, inferior producer that is so prevalent in this article--or the 'yeller of phrases,' Lil Jon model.  Lord Finesse's recollection is that it was NB that provided the raw material, but that PD also had a vision for it.  In this version, both are working on the same level and contributing in the same way.  In fact, there is more of a mentor/mentee relationship here, with NB learning from what PD can teach him.

Yet despite all of the collaboration that took place on this album, at the heart of it, NB remains the artist most generally acknowledged.  This suggests that we are still stuck in the idea of authorship/work, and while the audible presence of PD forces us to acknowledge that he is at least somehow involved, it is worth noting just how many other, less acknowledged people worked on this project as well.  This is not to say that NB's contributions are not unique and valuable; the fact that the lyrics for the song 'Things Done Changed' are included in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature confers the idea of authorship upon him in the most traditional sense.  But perhaps things have done changed, at least in the sense of whose artistic product this album truly is.  Without the heavy hand of PD, it is almost impossible to imagine what the ultimate sound would have been.  Of course, this influence will only become more acute with later NB tracks, particularly when only raw materials remained after his death, but that is the subject for another post.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


We have some fantastic entries for our first contest, where you come up with an advertising slogan for the Benz Parsifal.  You can still compete for this amazing prize!

Includes actual handwriting, with something about an alligator (?)
(Why yes, that was in the Wagner Etsy post)

Be sure to submit your entry by April 15 for full consideration!  You can comment here, email us, put your entry on our Twitter, put your entry on our Facebook....whatever means it takes!  We look forward to sending one lucky winner his magnificent prize!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Orchestral collaborations: Rhapsody in Blue

Kira's posts on the recent collaborations between Nas and the National Symphony Orchestra brought up a number of provocative questions.  To me, one of the most interesting was the balance of power: who is benefiting from this arrangement or, to paraphrase Kira's wording, who needs who?  Do the benefits fall more heavily toward Nas, in the sense that he is being validated by 'high-brow' musical culture?  Or is the orchestra as an institution moving in a new direction, perhaps one necessitated by the current state of classical music?  Alternatively, are such collaborations ultimately (and equally) beneficial to both sides?  I'm not sure that I have the answers to any of these questions, but I am dedicating this post to a consideration of an earlier collaboration that brought up similar issues, which was that of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and its subsequent history.

(Before I get started here, I would like to mention two important sources for Rhapsody in Blue research.  The first is the Cambridge Music Handbook by David Schiff, which offers a great, succinct introduction to the work and contemporary criticism to it.  The second is the work of Dr. Ryan Raul Bañagale, whose 2011 dissertation from Harvard examines this piece in considerable detail.  His book on this topic will be in print later this year from Oxford University Press.  Many thanks to Ryan for sharing material from his book to aid me with this post and, more generally, for his vital contribution to musicological blogging as one of the founders of amusicology.  Lastly, thanks to Dr. Andrew Berish for consulting with me about jazz on film; his book on this topic is available from University of Chicago Press).

The premiere of Rhapsody in Blue is heralded as a watershed moment in the history of American music--a topic of considerable debate at the time, since there was no clear vision at the time of what constituted distinctly American music.  By fusing together more popular styles, such as early forms of jazz, Gershwin's piece was thought to incorporate an American vernacular music with the venerated symphony orchestra.  Prior to Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin's fame had primarily come from his contributions in more popular forms, such as Broadway reviews and Tin Pan Alley songs.  In other words, he was not seen as a composer of high art music, even though he had been trained in this style.  Rhapsody in Blue, though, was thought to be a successful example of mixing together high and low art, categories that were significantly more stratified than they are now.

However, Gershwin did not complete this endeavor alone.  His work was premiered by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra on a program that was described as 'An Experiment in Modern Music.'  Whiteman had led various dance bands, but retained a more symphonic style in his sound, in contrast with contemporary jazz ensembles, which had not yet entered the big band era.  His music was popular and circulated widely on records in the early 1920s. 

(YouTube's guess is that the instrument starting at 1:00 is a musical saw.  Experimental sounds were a feature of much 1920s and 1930s jazz).

Whiteman, then, was retaining a sound that was closer to the symphony orchestra as integral to his music, so perhaps it is not surprising that he would seek to find a composer/collaborator who could work fluidly in both worlds.  After all, a success in the classical sphere could only extend his influence beyond that of the dance-music hall.  This blend between these two styles is apparent even in his choices of orchestration.  While his orchestra mostly sounds like a standard symphonic one in 'Whispering,' you can also hear instruments that reflect new, jazz-influenced sensibilities, including the banjo (the banjo will come back). 

The importance of Rhapsody in Blue for Whiteman's orchestra was not limited to this first performance (ed. note: be sure to check out Ryan Bañagale's forthcoming book, which details the many arranged versions of Rhapsody in Blue that were generally available for the market, as well as a comprehensive documentation of record sales).  Whiteman also performed it in two different film versions: one for the 1930 revue King of Jazz and the second for a 1945 fictionalized biography of Gershwin's life entitled (of course) Rhapsody in Blue.  The King of Jazz performance emphasizes the modernity of this 'experiment.'  Prior to hearing the piece, a narrator explains that Gershwin has successfully fused together not only jazz and classical, but music stemming back to ancient origins, since jazz is a form of 'primitive' music.  In fact, to become the 'king of jazz,' Whiteman had already battled against primitive forces, as depicted in the film through a cartoon scene that features him 'in darkest Africa' on a safari trip.  However, he does not wind up killing the various animals that he sees, but instead puts all beings in the vicinity under his spell as he plays jazz violin.  'Beings' in this sense includes two human beings, in the form of two 'African' tribesmen.  The music in this scene ranges widely, including military-inspired fanfares, a brief clip from Rhapsody in Blue (0:57), and even a moment (1:37) from the second movement of Dvořák's Twelfth String Quartet ('American').  When Whiteman breaks out his violin at 1:51, he is accompanied by banjo, a distinctive aural marker for a jazz section; it is worth noting that prior to this point, the orchestra has played very little that resembles jazz, making a better case for the orchestra as a traditional ensemble rather than what would be expected in a dance hall:

The lion's 'Mamie' (2:02) references Al Jolson, since this song was one of his enormous hits when he performed in blackface and was prominently featured in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer.  The scene with the snake (2:22) can best be summarized by a phrase that esteemed anthropologist Dr. Heide Castañeda coined yesterday in describing another exotic moment that made no sense: 'Because the Other.'

That Whiteman conquered this 'primitive' Africa is a theme that returns in the preamble to Rhapsody in Blue, heavily emphasized in an extended drum solo that opens the number--and that is not typically performed when hearing this composition.  The audience sees a silhouette of a figure dancing on a drum.  There can be no question that this is a 'primitive' dance, seeming to descend from a tribal ritual with an elaborate headdress.  The dancer is extremely darkly colored, particularly because of the dark blue set.  This is the 1930s depiction of 'deepest, darkest Africa,' at its most primitive:

I will give you a moment to collect your thoughts, which I'm sure stem mostly in the 'WHAT ON EARTH WAS THAT????????' direction.  In case you need a palate cleanser:

So: we had primitive with our dancer at the start.  Then we had modern, and a very classy, feather-filled version of modern it was, complete with chandeliers and headdresses (non-tribal variety).  If you are curious, the film was in color using an early duo-tone technique, so the 'blue' in the piano would have been seen by early audiences.  I am still not quite sure what to make of the multiple pianists playing the giant blue piano, but for that matter, I am still not sure what to make of the giant blue piano--or, perhaps more importantly, the gargantuan electric fern tree to its right.  I do like that the orchestra fits neatly inside.  From the primitive, then, we transcended to the modern in a most formal appearance, one flanked with tuxedos, classy dames, and so very many feathers.

Whiteman would record Rhapsody in Blue again for film, this time as part of an eponymous (fictionalized) biography of George Gershwin:

My favorite part of this clip--apart from the dramatic pan-out--is at the end, where an audience member declares that the piece is 'fourteen minutes and five.  A very important piece'--in other words, a legitimate composition instead of a dance number.  Earlier in the film, we did see that Gershwin's music was popular, but that it commanded little respect in part because it was from a 'lower' genre.  In fact, Gershwin was fired for playing his own music when he should have been promoting the works of others.  However, its intrinsic value was recognized by Al Jolson--appearing blatantly in blackface--who was enchanted by the melody from the first time he heard it:

There is a lot to untangle here.  'Swanee' was, of course, one of Jolson's big hits when he was a stage performer and I am certain that one of the primary reasons that this scene would have been included in the film was as a token of nostalgia for older audience members, who would have grown up seeing Jolson perform this number.  That he was in blackface might have been less shocking then, even though by 1945 the practice had abated in live film, but Jolson was already known for his performances in this role. The popularity of 'Swanee' is immediately evident from the applause offered by the audience, although Gershwin remains stoic in the face of his success, claiming that he will write 'something better than that.'  The 'something better,' of course, is Rhapsody in Blue, which becomes the focal point in the film for Gershwin's ability to conquer classical audiences at long last.

Undoubtedly, you have picked up on the very bizarre race relations that are emerging in this film, particularly concerning the appropriation of jazz by a bunch of white guys (including one white guy who is wearing blackface.  Because the Other).  While this post is not the place to address the complexity of the blackface topic (don't worry, there will likely be a follow-up), the fact that the audiences are exclusively white for both performances is noteworthy--although not surprising, considering that this was still the age of segregation, through formal and informal means.  Regardless, jazz, in this case, is being elevated.  It can join the rank of prestigious music, so long as it is presented in a Rhapsody in Blue-type manner.  Indeed, by doing so, Gershwin transcends the 'mere' dance music that he wrote before, winning over even the concert-goers with his very important fourteen-or-so minute composition.

Looking more closely at both performances, I would argue that Whiteman is, in fact, privileging the classical over jazz.  In some respects, jazz elements are present, such as the extremely prominent banjo literally sitting front row, center.  The seating for the Rhapsody in Blue film performance is quite similar to how a big band would sit, featuring the musicians on risers (although they lack fancy music stand monikers).  Even more jazz-like is the focus on soloists, who not only rise when they play, but are also featured in the spotlight.  However, one crucial classical feature remains, which is the conductor.  Whiteman's baton is particularly prominent in this scene, demonstrating that he is in charge of the ensemble.  The same can be said of the 1930 King of Jazz performance; in this case, the whole scene is based on his preeminence as the 'king of jazz' who fought off the savage 'beasts' in the African jungle.  While Whiteman does not emerge until later in this scene, when the orchestra rises up from the piano (2:52), he is raised even further above the ensemble and his (possibly oversized?) baton can be seen.

Whiteman's leading of the ensemble as a classical conductor differs from what audiences would have seen from African-American band leaders at the time.  For instance, in Black and Tan Fantasy (1929), Duke Ellington leads from the piano when we see him with his band.  Even from the very beginning of the clip, Duke is not the 'king of jazz,' but is seen collaborating with Arthur Whetsol, his trumpet player:

Count Basie, too, performed at the piano and had those fancy monikered music stands that immediately scream 'jazz band' to me.  This example is from the 1943 film Reveille with Beverly:

Whiteman, then, is presenting his ensemble as an orchestra, not a band, since he retains control as its conductor and leader.  I would argue that this distinction is an important one.  An orchestra, after all, is a marker of a prestigious cultural product, an association that I feel is still present today.  It was the orchestra that allowed Gershwin to present his 'very important' piece, for instance.  Why the orchestra?  It has a long history of being the premiere ensemble, going all the way back to the nineteenth century in German writings.  I find it noteworthy that Nas' collaboration was with an orchestra; you don't often hear so much about collaborations between hip hop artists and a prestigious string quartet, for example, or Renée Fleming providing the vocals for the latest 50 Cent track (Dear Renée and 50, Get. On. This.).  No, it is the orchestra that conjures up an image of high art almost instantaneously, and I think that this is part of its cachet when it comes to collaborating with more popular forms of culture.  In the Whiteman example, it elevated his ensemble beyond the dance hall.  In Nas' case, I like to think that we have moved beyond these distinctions of high and low art, and where these types of arts can and/or should reside.  However, it is difficult to ignore the fact that yet again, the (prestigious) symphony orchestra was called into play for a collaboration.