About | Remix Defined | The Book | Texts | Projects | Travels/Exhibits | Remixes/Lists| Twitter

Archive of the category 'Hip Hop'

The Vocoder: From Speech-Scrambling To Robot Rock

Note: The following is an interview about a book that’s coming out on the history of the vocoder.  Quite interesting.  My only observation is that the interviewer casually links early Hip Hop with pop culture and this is missed by the interviewee. Historians know that early Hip Hop was also an avant-garde movement, though with different preocupations of previous groups who may have deliberately linked themselves with the nineteenth century concept. Still worth the listen/reading.

Orignally aired/published: May 13, 2010

If you’ve listened to pop music in the past 40 years, you’ve probably heard more than a few songs with a robotic sound. That’s thanks to the vocoder, a device invented by Bell Labs, the research division of AT&T. Though the vocoder has found its way into music, the machine was never intended for that function. Rather, it was developed to decrease the cost of long-distance calls and has taken on numerous other uses since.

Music journalist Dave Tompkins has written a book about the vocoder and its unlikely history. It’s called How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II to Hip-Hop.

Tompkins says the machine played a significant role in World War II. After the U.S. government discovered that Winston Churchill’s conversations with Franklin D. Roosevelt were being intercepted and deciphered by the Germans, it decided to invest in speech-encoding technology. So the National Defense Research Committee commissioned Bell Labs in 1942 to develop a machine — and Bell Labs delivered.

The vocoder wasn’t without its flaws. Intelligibility of speech sometimes proved a problem, but Tompkins says pitch control was a bigger concern.

“They didn’t mind world leaders sounding like robots, just as long as they didn’t sound like chipmunks,” he says. “Eisenhower did not want to sound like a chipmunk.”

Read or listen to the complete interview at NPR

What Happened to the Remix?

I ran into this brief interview with Just Blaze, who explains his theory on how music samples can  be tracked on radio play to evaluate popularity of a song.

Shrine to the Funky Drummer

Shrine to the Funky Drummer from Joshua Pablo Rosenstock on Vimeo.

Recently received a link from Joshua Pablo Rosenstock about his video, Shrine to the Funky Drummer.  The video presents Rosenstock as a subject who is greatly influenced by James Brown’s “Funky Drummer.”  We quickly learn that his interest is a jumping point to understand how the song’s basic drum beat has become part of Hip Hop consciousness.

While the video, in my opinion could be edited (the intro is too long, and some footage does not match the sound), it does provide some historical context as to the art of sampling and its place in Hip Hop Culture.  It starts with Rosenstock listening to a scratched 45, and then playing the beat on a drum set.  The next set of scenes are about DJ’s manipulating The Funky Drummer’s break beat, complemented with random interviews with record diggers and turntablists. The video then goes back to Rosenstock who no longer plays a drum set, but a set of samples from a drum machine.

Shrine to the Funky Drummer reminds me a bit about Nate Harrison’s  Amen Brother Break.  Though very different in approach, both videos can be complementary references for understanding the history of Remix.  I understand that Shrine to the Funky Drummer’s current version is a rough cut, so I look forward to the final production.

Walking On Eggshells: Borrowing Culture in the Remix Age

A documentary consisting of brief interviews with not just musicians, but visual artists, writers, VJs and lawyers.  The intro is creative.

on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jt0ASo_6Sdg&

[Re]Cuts, A Video Remix After Burroughs


[Re]Cuts was specifically developed in January of 2010 for an exhibition at IMT Gallery in London.  The video is inspired by Burroughs’s experimentation with tape recordings. The exhibit takes place from May 28 through July 18 2010. I thank Mark Jackson for the invitation and the opportunity to exhibit my work.

excerpt from the actual project webpage:

[Re]Cuts is a remix of image, sound, and text inspired by William Burroughs’s aesthetics of tape recording. The video is also influenced by his cut-up method as defined for writing in “The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin.” The video does not follow the strict cup-up rules professed by Burroughs, but rather considers his aesthetics as a point of reference to develop a non-sensical narrative.

Read more information and view video

REBLOG (Press Release): Dead Fingers Talk: The Tape Experiments of William S. Burroughs

Image and text source: IMT Gallery

Note: Press release about an upcoming exhibition in which I participate taking place in London at IMT Gallery during May through June of 2010.


Dead Fingers Talk is an ambitious forthcoming exhibition presenting two unreleased tape experiments by William Burroughs from the mid 1960s alongside responses by 23 artists, musicians, writers, composers and curators.

Few writers have exerted as great an influence over such a diverse range of art forms as William Burroughs. Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine and Junky, continues to be regularly referenced in music, visual art, sound art, film, web-based practice and literature. One typically overlooked, yet critically important, manifestation of his radical ideas about manipulation, technology and society is found in his extensive experiments with tape recorders in the 1960s and ’70s. Dead Fingers Talk: The Tape Experiments of William S. Burroughs is the first exhibition to truly demonstrate the diversity of resonance in the arts of Burroughs’ theories of sound.

listen to your present time tapes and you will begin to see who you are and what you are doing here mix yesterday in with today and hear tomorrow your future rising out of old recordings

everybody splice himself in with everybody else

The exhibition includes work by Joe Ambrose, Steve Aylett, Alex Baker & Kit Poulson, Lawrence English, The Human Separation, Riccardo Iacono, Anthony Joseph, Cathy Lane, Eduardo Navas, Negativland, o.blaat, Aki Onda, Jörg Piringer, Plastique Fantastique, Simon Ruben White, Giorgio Sadotti, Scanner, Terre Thaemlitz, Thomson & Craighead, Laureana Toledo and Ultra-red, with performances by Ascsoms and Solina Hi-Fi.

Inspired by the expelled Surrealist painter Brion Gysin, and yet never meant as art but as a pseudo-scientific investigation of sounds and our relationship to technology and material, the experiments provide early examples of interactions which are essential listening for artists working in the digital age.

In the case of the work in the exhibition the contributors were asked to provide a “recording” in response to Burroughs’ tape experiments. The works, which vary significantly in media and focus, demonstrate the diversity of attitudes to such a groundbreaking period of investigation.

Dead Fingers Talk: The Tape Experiments of William S. Burroughs is curated by Mark Jackson. The project is supported by the London College of Communication, CRiSAP and ADi Audiovisual and has been made possible by the kind assistance of the William Burroughs Trust, Riflemaker and the British Library.

Beatrix*Jar, Hacking Away at MCASD, by Eduardo Navas

Sound set up by Beatrix*Jar, combines hacked battery operated toys with prerecorded samples played on a vintage Denon CD-DJ machine.

On January 23, I attended a circuit bending workshop at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) taught by the experimental music duo, Beatrix*jar.  The hacking session was organized specifically for teenagers, who were more than ready to open up battery operated instrumental toys to release the ghost in the machine.

Another shot of Beatrix*Jar’s set up.

I was interested in attending the event in order to get a sense of how teenagers in a time of  inter-connectivity relate to low-tech hacking.  I left the museum with a positive reaction as I confirmed that tinkering is not a trend but a constant creative staple for generations of the past, present, and future.

Video of Beatrix*Jar’s six minute improvisational performance

The session began with a six minute performance by the sound art collective,  which clearly got the young hackers excited about the possibilities of circuit bending.  Beatrix*Jar, who have a background in art, are quick to claim that when they got started they had no music training.  This was their way of saying “anyone can do it!”  They complemented their demos with historical information, and encouraged participants to read Reed Ghazala’s Extreme Tech Circuit Bending.

A hacked Casio keyboard.  The on/off switches on the sides add customized sounds found by benders who participate in the ongoing workshop sessions held at different venues by Beatrix*Jar.

After explaining the beginnings of circuit bending, they quickly moved to demonstrating how to open up the toys, and find unexpected sounds.

Opening the gadgets to release the ghost in the machine.  Circuit bending frenzy at its best.

Gabrielle Wyrick, Education Curator, who kindly hosted me for the afternoon, explained that the workshops for teenagers are part of a program set up to encourage kids of all ages to realize that the museum is a place to visit and learn, interact, have fun, and most of all be creative.  Workshops like these, Wyrick explained are at times held for adults as well.  It appears that the concept of interactivity is finding its way everywhere, even to institutions such as museums that in the past posed as monolithic entities.  A good thing this is, as Wyrick explains that the MCASD wants to embrace audience involvement. The museum is redefining itself as a place which searches for ways to reveal the creative process in visitors, who can experiment with similar strategies that inform the creative drive of artists who actually have exhibits in the museum.

Beatrix*Jar explain how to hack battery operated instrumental toys.

For me it was a treat to see a hacking duo having a lot of fun with second-hand gadgets that can be found at any garage sale.  Creativity is the best value money can’t buy.

944 Nightlife Issue, KCRW DJ’s Featured, by Eduardo Navas

Image: 944.com

I’m currently in Los Angeles.  Just picked up a copy of 944, a magazine about fashion, entertainment and lifestyle.  The August issue features “the nightlife.”  Like most lifestyle magazines these days, it consists of short snippets about trendsetters or “pioneers.”  One cannot help but notice a quote stating that DJ’s can make as much as 35,000 for a three hour set.  The magazine truly hypes up the life on the ones and twos.

Regardless of such statements, as I  grew up in Los Angeles, I was quite happy to see that 944 acknowledged real talent.  Above are some of the DJ’s that have shaped my views on music beyond the mainstream.  Trinidad’s Chocolate City may well be a historical gem of a radio show, which any music historian specialized in radio would have to note; he has a vast knowledge of R & B and Soul and has taken great care to bring back B-sides that even serious record diggers have missed.  The same for Jason Bentley, who was around even before Garth with his radio show, Metropolis.  Bentley was one of the first DJ’s to mix electronic music live on the radio.

The entire magazine can be browsed in a well designed flash interface: http://proofcenter.944.com/flipbook/?locale=4

Cultural Center of Spain Events: Premio Arte Joven and Latina Urbana, by Eduardo Navas

From left to right: Eduardo Navas, Seidel Brito, Mónica Mejia (CCE Program Coordinator), and Clara Astiasarán. Discussing the ongoing selections of Arte Joven.

I visited San Salvador in June.  This time I was invited again by Cultural Center of Spain to be a juror for their  Premio Arte Joven 2009 (Young Artist Award 2009).  The prize has been in place for ten years now, and has proven to be an important cultural element in supporting young artists in their early professional development.

From far left to right: Saidel Brito and Eduardo Navas, discussing the selection process with applicants. Clara Astiasarán participated via Skype.

I was in excellent company with fellow jurors Cuban artist Saidel Brito, and Cuban art critic Clara Astiasarán.  We spent several intensive hours going over 71 proposals, from which we chose eight by artists: Ernesto Bautista, Héctor Bermúdez, Boris Ciudad Real, Mauricio Esquivel, Melissa Guevara, José David Herrera, Mauricio Kabistan, and Hugo Rivas.  Their projects will be featured in an exhibition in October 2009.  From the selected artists three will be chosen by a different set of jurors for first, second, and third place awards that include cash prizes.  The October exhibition is complemented with a well produced catalogue.

Aside from meeting with the eight artists to discuss the possibilities of installation and development of their proposals, we, as jurors, also decided to meet with all applicants to explain the selection process and encourage artists to meet each other and converse. This was a way to support and expand the growing art community of El Salvador.  The turn out was great and we had an extensive and constructive exchange about art practice and professional development.

DJ A Todo Color, warming up the crowd for recording artists Ikah and Ari Puello on the International Day of Music, June 20, 2009.

Ikah keeps the crowd shaking during her set.

During my stay in San Salvador, on Saturday June 20, I was able to attend a concert also organized by the Cultural Center of Spain in collaboration with the Cultural French Alliance, featuring local rap artists, including Pescozada and Five o Three.  This was the second year in which the French initiated public event “International Day of Music” was extended to the streets of San Salvador.  The main feature of the night was Latina Urbana, a touring act consisting of Ikah, based in Madrid; and Arianna Puello, based in Barcelona. Both recording artists consistently tour throughout Latin America.  They were gracefully supported by the beats of DJ A Todo Color (DJ total color), also from Barcelona.

Ari Puello breaking it down from beginning to end.

The evening was well organized as Pescozada and Five o Three warmed up the crowd for Ikah, who with her R & B compositions kept the crowd going.  Ari Puello closed the evening with a strong set of some of her best hits.  Ikah has one album and Puello has four.  Puello is actually considered an important artist in Latin American rap. Many people in the audience sang along with her while waving their hands in acknowledgment of her well calculated rhyme and beat.

Brief Reflection on MJ, by Eduardo Navas

Image source: Solar Navigator

As I write this entry, the Internet is flowing with comments and information about Michael Jackson.  Here is my drop in the sea of data that will be archived in places people who adopt RSS as part of their daily life will never know exist.

As critical as I am about pop culture, I have to admit that Michael Jackson was ever-present in my growing years; the teenager in me mourns, while the critic cannot help but reflect on the implications of this unexpected and unfortunate death.  As sad as Jackson’s passing away is to millions of people, one cannot help but notice how media has changed in the way it handles celebrities and public figures. Just a few years ago there would have been some distance from the dark side of a person’s life.  This may still hold true for presidents of the United States as one hardly heard anything negative about Richard Nixon during his funeral.  Watergate had become so abstract that it could be cited as a historical moment with no major shame for the country or Nixon’s presidency.  This is the power of ahistoricity: people’s  lack of historical knowledge made possible by 24 hour news cycles.

But with Michael Jackson a different kind of mourning takes place. His accomplishments and setbacks are cited simultaneously.  Everywhere, from CNN to all major newspapers, like the NYTimes and El Pais in Spain, Michael Jackson is remembered for all his deeds–good and bad.  As he is remembered as the King of Pop, he is also remembered as a  person who was accused of child molestation (this was not proven in court).  He is subjected to the aesthetic of reality TV.

In a way this might be healthy for the way people perceive celebrities, as people may become more accepting of public figures’ shortcomings.  The sad thing is that scandals sell, and this is the last thing Michael Jackson is remembered for.  The King of Pop was planning a comeback, but this one was not to be.  He will be remembered as a  conflicted figure, who will inevitably be romanticized for his early production and his conflicted last years.

And now, it is time to settle for reissues of MJ’s music in whatever form networked culture will allow.  As I write these lines, files of Jackson’s songs are being swapped across the Internet–bootleg remixes made in bedrooms across the world to be shared in just minutes, while music executives figure out a way to cash in on MJ’s music legacy.    Such cash-in will be mixed and hard to control.  Michael Jackson dies in a time when things for the music industry are not so clear cut and no celebrity is perfect, and that imperfection in the end may mean more cash

He was a person who everyone knew through spectacular images.  He may have known himself through the same images as well.  As constant exposure rises with social networks, Michael Jackson, the most famous person vanishes.  Let this be a rupture in the era of networked media.  Michael Jackson is about to become an institution,  like Marilyn, like Presley, like Warhol.  He will live forever as a spectacular figure.  But let’s not forget that somewhere in there was a child who was trying to understand himself.  I may be accused of a bit of romanticism with this last statement.  Let it be. This is why I chose an early image of Michael Jackson to complement this short reflection on a celebrity I felt I knew, as I had no choice but to acknowledge him everywhere I turned as I grew up.  I accepted him as I was bombarded by his presence, just as I am now by the repetition of his spectacular absence.  I admit to have moonwalked.  RIP MJ.

Current Projects






    Remix Theory | is an online resource by Eduardo Navas. To learn more about it read the about page.

    Logo design by Ludmil Trenkov