From New Worlds to Nu Skools

Black Holes on the Soundtrack Part 2

published in The Wire No.167, January, 1998, London

A camera crane glides up, lifting us through the tops of maple trees, resting on a view of houses and apartments with stoops rolling down to street level. It looks like the mythical New York residential street shot on Universal's 'Main Street' lot for the past fifty years. Lush orchestrated strings convey the sensation of rising, floating, hovering. The fuzzy homespun blanket of Hollywood Americana is felt: a calming yet slightly claustrophobic warmth. But this is a real street is in Bedford Stuyvestant, New York. The film is Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) with a score by Bill Lee. Something is wrong with this picture. Why is a radically black film resorting to white picturesque music? Because this music - that lilting brave tonality of epic Americana - is not white. It is a dense harmonic cartography of America's racial and colonial history. It contains hymnal strains of Baptist eulogies, shifting undertones of transient blues idioms, metamorphosing key changes typical of jazz arrangements. This music - despite its accrued signage of Hollywood humanism - is black.

To comprehend and identify this germ of blackness, we must briefly trace its major carriers: the 'new world' sound of symphonic works by Virgil Thompson and Aaron Copeland. Their triumphant yet melancholic compositions reside in the popular consciousness as sublime icons of America's majestic land mass, and have an uncanny effect of atonement when set to images of America's abuse of its land and people. While silent and early sound cinema in America relied on European pastoral stylistics to musically connote the frontier west, Thompson and Copeland were epicentral in the shift from established 19th century romanticism to a specific distillation of 'the American spirit'. Thompson's scores for documentaries about the harshness of the land (THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS, THE SPANISH EARTH, both 1936, and THE RIVER, 1937) were highly influential in imbuing farmers' struggles with pathos. Less acknowledged by film history is Thompson's embrace of blues, folk and ethnic music to characterize his harmonies with non-European modals. Copeland - like Thompson, a respected 'serious' composer of the time - worked in a less quotative and more transformative manner with his ballets and symphonies, yet imbedded deep in his climbing 4ths and 5ths are the templates of blues chord progressions. His Americanesque flavour emotionally synced to the depression era as documented in the 'heroic journalese' of John Steinbeck, and Copeland's score for OF MICE AND MEN (1939, directed by Lewis Milestone) is a landmark in musical melancholia with its unsentimental accompaniment to the plight of dust bowl Oakies heading West to California in desperate search of work.

Of course, land ownership and territorial possession form the crux here: who owns what, who takes from whom, who inhabits where. Bill Lee's score for DO THE RIGHT THE THING reclaims that melancholic sound like forty acres of harmony and replays it as a contemporary racial threnody - one that poignantly breathes between the tenser moments of conflict between the Italians, Koreans and African-Americans Spike Lee's film. This might appear a mute point - an insignificant one, even - but Spike Lee has continually applied a socio-political perspective on the possession and authorship of harmony and melody in all his films. Often, his cinema is at it most radical on the soundtrack. For just as Thompson and Copeland (and other key 'Americana' composers like Alex North, Elmer Bernstein and Laurence Rosenthal) openly or obliquely referenced black folk/popular music as a strategy for defining an American identity against European affectation, Spike Lee explores first degree folk/popular music as the material from which to mold a soundtrack.

While two of his films directly address the production of music - MO' BETTER BLUES (1991) and CROOKLYN (1994) - two more recent films demonstrate the precision with which Spike Lee weaves song into cinema. GIRL 6 (1995) features a 'score' by Prince comprised of songs from the complete Prince catalogue. This in itself is an interesting concept: to use the history of one performer as score material, so as to match the linearity of the composer's chronology to the sequential structure of a narrative. GIRL 6 is simultaneously marked by stylistic heterogeneity (what with Prince being an open vessel through which the history of black musical passes) and a solo identity. The elusive, squirming femininity of Prince - his shrieking, bisexual, erogenous presence that repels and seduces - is closely tied to the film's central woman and her fiery unpredictability as she falls into phone sex work after failing successive acting auditions.

If GIRL 6 is a 'girl's film', CLOCKERS is a 'boy's film'. Each are sad, hopeful testaments to the will to survive in a harsh economic climate - yet both move far away from any of the post-Thompson/Copeland musical humanism which could have been employed. CLOCKERS features a remarkably eclectic soundtrack which again dances around the myriad of mood shifts in its central confused character in his environment as he slowly sinks into drug dealing while lazily dreaming of success. Deeply moving tracks by Chaka Khan, Des'ree, Seal & Marc Dorsey collide with aggressively bombastic tracks by Rebelz Of Authority, Crooklyn Dodgers, Strictly Difficult & Buckshot LeFonque. Spike Lee referred to his direction of the Richard Price novel not as an interpretation; he used the jazz vernacular of 'writing over' Price's words. By constructing a soundtrack to reflect a black experience as voiced through the breadth of black music, Spike Lee effectively reterritorializes a white narration of a black world.

Territory is at the core of perhaps one of the most ignored Hip Hop movies, COLORS (1987) directed by Denis Hopper. Yet while Spike Lee strategically directs the reclamation of a musicological blackness from white popular culture, Denis Hopper (in collusion with possibly the most imaginative and perceptive sound designer in Hollywood, Randy Thom) uses sonic texturing and spatialization to alienate and disorient the auditor/viewer. Employing the expanded fidelity of Dolby's SR Surround Sound and an increase in precision with which sound could be spatially located within a mix, the sound of COLORS is mammoth, violent and hallucinatory.

The opening title is superimposed over shots of outer LA seen through the window of a roaming cop car. A spray can then 'bloods' the title lettering and red spray paint drips down like blood. But the sound that accompanies this visual device - especially when heard in the cinema through a THX sound system - sounds like it has been smeared onto the cinema screen itself. From that point on, the cinema space is configured as a threatening zone, a territorial realm where you as an audience member are under threat. Constantly and consistently, sounds come from behind, above, extreme left & right so that one is always left suspecting there is always more than what is depicted on the screen. As such, off-screen sounds of screams, gunshots, sirens, footsteps, breaths are signs of potential death in the black night of the urban jungle. Before too long one is engaged in 'reading' sounds as cues for survival. The deep hum of cruising low-riders nearing their drive-by, the fractured Electro and Latin Hip Hop beats from a boom-box, the yelping of killer dogs chained to the wire mesh of desolate front yard - all are signs of one gang transgressing the turf of another, and clarion calls for inevitable clashes and violence.

Gun shots in COLORS are more subjective and more gut-wrenching then in any other film to date. Not because they are loud and 'in-your-face', but because their placement in the mix is designed to psycho-acoustically convey the effect of being shot, using high-pitched clicks to peak percussive impact and diffused low thuds to wrack the body with queasy feeling. Their spread of frequencies in the surround space is crucial to the sound enveloping you, just as it is intended that you do not simply observe human tragedy but you sense it through noting your own irrational and emotional reaction to being manipulated in this way. Taking its cue from the incessant use of gun shot sound effects in Hip Hop over the last decade and a half, COLORS replays the fetishization of those sounds and intensifies them. To tone them down would amount to a denial of the social reality of vicious crime circles within which so much of Black America is trapped.

But if you chose to dismiss the death aesthetic the film relishes, there is one thing you cannot ignore: bass. COLORS is a film that knows bass, feels it, and lets it boom vociferously in the auditorium. The title track by Ice-T is mixed into the film soundtrack without diluting the power of its 808 kick and bass-pumped kick samples, making the music (and other Old Skool tracks by Big Daddy Kane, Roxanne Shante, 7A3 & Kool G. Rap) take on the full sensory throb of a club environment. COLORS is the first film that privileges subsonic frequencies in music. Bass is acceptable in film sound as earthquakes, spaceships and the voice of god - but the sheer electronic intensity of drum machines and sampled loops still to this day finds but mere crevices for placement in the final mix of a film. COLORS - and the Nu Skool Blaxploitation of films from NEW JACK CITY through to FRIDAY - uses its subsonic musical pulsations to occupy the soundtrack and reframe the frequency range one expects of music cue placement. Exploiting the wilful and heady excessiveness that energizes music that is "too black - too strong", black films post-COLORS occupy the cinema auditorium through sonic extremism, and celebrate the earthy totality of Hip Hop's aural landscape.

Text © Philip Brophy 1998. Images © respective copyright holders