Library of Exquisite Corpses

When one speaks of a pastiche, one refers to a piece which imitates another work or form of art in a way that “pastes” together multiple elements. In terms of form pastiche can be seen as closer to eclecticism than allusion because, while pastiche mixes together a variety of sources and plays off of them, it does not necessarily require that the listener have a previous understanding of what is being referenced in order to glean some form of meaning from the work. Pastiche also differs from parody in that the latter tends to add mockery to its analysis of a subject, while the former tends towards appreciation or praise. Works that fall under the category of pastiche rest on reference yet do not particularly need an “in group” to be enjoyed, at least in some cursory sense. In short, we can call such art a form of “recognizable appropriation.”

Some have looked at pop music through the lens of pastiche, mainly with a critical lens. More specifically, pop music often gets a bad rap of being redundant and referencing other work without adding anything “novel” to the genre. Mid 2010s hits like Bruno Mars’ “Treasure” and Pharrell’s “Happy,” it has been argued, have plucked from styles of the past but in a manner that does not change the reference material in any dramatic sort of way. Thus Dj Louie XIV notes, “Indeed, unlike any pop epoch before it, innumerable definitive tunes from the 2010s have mimicked sounds from other decades without altering or updating them in any significant fashion.” The best example of this kind of “reference without dramatic change” from the 2010s is “Blurred Lines” which sounded so similar to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up,” that his family filed lawsuits against Pharrell and Robin Thicke (twice) which they ultimately won. 

While such examples can be said to show the ways in which pop music can, at times, display an occasional penchant for theft, this does not mean that the genre is completely devoid of ingenuity as a whole. Ariana Grande’s hit, “thank u next” certainly stokes our sense of nostalgia with a sound that could easily fit in with any 90s rom-com, possibly a scene where the designated love interest “kisses the girl.” Moreover when Grande sings, Thank you next/I’m so fucking grateful for my ex and talks specifically about the influence that various exs have added to her life, she introduces an angle into the song which ensures that it does not fall into the trappings stereotypical pop love songs tend towards, in which the idea of longing for a love interest is valorized. In the process of doing so, she also refrains from speaking disparagingly of former flings and prevents the song from relying on a one dimensional idea of self confidence that uses a shallow notion of superiority as the basis for chastising former lovers. At its worst this kind of narrative structuring can tend towards a flattened story of “good girl corrupted by bad boy,” à la Taylor Swift. Instead, towards the end of the song, Grande looks to her mother’s fortitude as an example of strength which gives her the ability to find a self assured centeredness with which she can simultaneously move on and away from her past while looking back with gratitude. 

Similarly, Solange’s, When I Get Home borrows from other styles, yet it avoids some of the pitfalls other popular music has fallen into (although, to note, she certainly dips her toe in more genre than one). The album stands first and foremost as an homage to her hometown of Houston,Texas and the regional hip hop sounds that accompany it. Elements of chopped and screwed, with slowed down beats and altered pitches, are littered all throughout this album. At times she goes further, flowing from jazz to soul to funk while featuring an eclectic group of artists to match, from RnB singer, producer, and songwriter, The Dream to Animal Collective member Panda Bear. Beyond referencing rap, she brings artists from the genre in on tracks themselves, from Playboi Carti to Gucci Mane, effectively marrying various genres and jumping through points in space and time which ultimately works to create a complex soundscape that immerses the listener in something all its own.

However, as culture currently stands, placing the conversation within pop may be misguided, with what would traditionally be called pop giving way to microgenres that explicitly blend elements from other sounds and take a more tongue in cheek approach to the genre as a whole, like hyperpop. Moreover, much of what tops the pop charts now are in fact hip hop releases, and many have argued rap has effectively replaced pop as the predominant genre. Because it is in pop’s nature to borrow from other genres, it would make sense that pop music would come to absorb elements of rap. Still, maybe looking to pop as a cultural thermometer for this day and age is to take the wrong approach. Instead, a more thorough examination might entail looking at the ways in which rap possibly injects new vitalism into music and how it fosters a different connection with the listener than that of pop. But, first, we have to attempt to understand the role pastiche plays within hip hop as a whole.

Here I would argue that, while pastiche can fall flat at times, the role it ultimately plays in hip hop helps create a more engaged, active listener. In this case, hip hop functions similarly to what Barthes would call a writerly text, or one that rejects fixed meanings and instead places the reader (or in this case I’m arguing, the listener) in a position of control, as they are expected to take an active role in the construction of meaning. Through confrontation with writerly texts, listeners or viewers are expected to call upon previous knowledge, often cultural knowledge, in order to fully grasp the complexity of the work at hand. Such texts are set to effectively bring about a form of jouissance.

In his short biography of de Sade’s Barthe notes, “the pleasure of reading him clearly proceeds from certain breaks (or certain collisions): antipathetic codes (the noble and the trivial, for example) come into contact; pompous and ridiculous neologisms are created; pornographic messages are embodied in sentences so pure they might be used as grammatical models. As textual theory has it: the language is redistributed.” Barthes pairs de Sade’s imagined scenes with the scandalous way in which he lived his life and the societal climate at that time, in order to make the claim that Sade functioned on a level of duality that was laden with multiple levels of meaning. As he does, he draws connections to Saussure’s notes on anagrams, in which poetic language is thought to add a second dimension to words. In this way, such works can be understood by the nature of their duplicity, mainly, “By which it must be understood that they always have two edges. The subversive edge may seem privileged because it is the edge of violence;  but it is not violence which affects pleasure, nor is it destruction which interests it; what pleasure wants is at the site of loss, the seam, the cut, the deflation, the dissolve which seizes the subject in the midst of bliss. Culture thus recurs as an edge: in no matter what form.” If we take this analysis to have some basis, we can then apply this notion to our examination of rap culture.

In “Diamonds and Wood,” Pimp C effectively exposes us to this space of duality when he says, “Got to the point where I could not decipher day from night/She say she love me, but all we do now is fuck and fight/My conscience fuck wit’ me so much that I can’t eat or sleep/The other side of selling dope and out there running the streets.” Through use of these lyrics he traps us in a hall of dichotomies, where we are stuck between a series of opposites that we must wrestle with in order to fully understand this song’s weight. Explaining further, Maco L. Faniel author of the book Hip Hop in Houston; The Origin and Legacy states that Pimp C crafts “a story of the horrors and hatred that one can face in urban America…” through which “rappers tell how they cope with these horrors through the pleasure of being able to drive their nice car and jam ‘screw.’” 

The latest iteration of the Houston sound within hip hop can be found in Megan Thee Stallion. A regional native, she cites Pimp C and Three 6 Mafia as a few of her influences. The sound of her hometown can be found all throughout her music, which matches a self assured laid back feel with a flow that’s reminiscent of Bun B. Yet instead of exploring the same thematic tropes as her idols, she takes that sound and instead uses it to generate a kind of visceral sexual confidence dripped in vulgarity which, in terms of content, more closely resembles the works of artists like Trina or Kool Keith. What she and regional kin share is a funk influence that historically was absorbed by artists like UGK, which then travelled throughout the greater South through artists like Webbie, and up through the West Coast (which in the case of the later helped breed another subgenre, G Funk). 

To better understand the way in which exchange happens across space and time in hip hop, it may be useful to track the ways in which the triggerman beat has come to have a long lasting impact on rap music as a whole, as well as on New Orleans as a region. Released in 1986 by The Showboys,’ “Drag Rap” contains a drum loop that has become a foundational beat within New Orleans bounce music. Early bounce music like “Where Dey At?” by Mc T. Tucker and DJ Irv take the triggerman beat and turn it into a high energy and playful song which has come to exemplify the sub genre. In terms of impact, this beat alone has come to serve as a template for over 150 songs, and various artists have come to use the beat in some form including regional hip hop favorites like Juvenile, as well as other southern rappers like David Banner and Three 6 Mafia. Beyond that, it has even traversed its way upwards towards Chicago by way of Twista and Kanye West. Bounce music, in turn, has come to proliferate the mainstream through Beyoncé, for example, who borrowed from the Nola sound and sampled city favorites for “Formation,” on 2016’s Lemonade. Bounce artists like Big Freedia, Sissy Nobby, and the late Nicky da B have found various levels of success themselves and the dance that accompanies this music, twerking, has found its place in popular culture, further solidifying the sound’s broader influence.

Memphis rap tapes and their low-fi sound have also come to influence the genre at large. Littered with repeated hooks and phrases, many of these tapes were originally produced by Memphis artists themselves in small studios or at home. Though sometimes tracks have featured clips from horror films, many songs contain little to no sampling from other sources. Instead, artists often looped their own phrases to create hooks that could meld into the beat. Some of the most prominent artists from this region, Three 6 Mafia, 8ball, and MJG, have gone on to impact rap at large, which has subsequently absorbed the Memphis sound with its aggressive use of hi hats and dark lyrical themes. What’s interesting about Three 6 Mafia in particular is that the material that other artists have gone on to sample by them are samples that the Three 6 crew generated themselves in previous songs through constant repetition of their own phrases.

In other words, beyond the group’s impact on the genre at large by way of their use of samples such as Dj Jimi’s 1992 track “Bitches,” which is, in fact, in the style of New Orleans bounce, and thus shows the crosstalk within the genre between regions, what makes them particularly interesting is the level to which they have also impacted rap through the creation of their own self referential system. Within this microcosm of exchange, singular Hypnotize Minds artists would thematically respond to, and play off of, songs from other members within the label, or sample lines from those members directly. For instance, on La Chat’s 2001 album Murder She Spoke, she churns out “Slob on My Cat,” in which she articulates a female response to group-mate Juicy J’s “Slob on My Knob,” which reverses the roles while maintaining the same directness and bravado. Interplay between Hypnotize Minds members is also apparent on songs they share together. Moreover, these artists have not only sampled each other and outside sources, but have also referenced and referred to lyrics that were generated within the group. In turn, this Memphis sound has also made it over to other regional sub genres, like Chicago’s drill scene which has retooled and repurposed this sound in both direct and indirect ways. Additionally, drill is partially influenced by Atlanta artists like Gucci Mane and Soulja Boy, all of which ultimately helped form a subgenre laden with grim nihilism which is filtered, at times, through warbled auto tune.

In this way, hip hop can also be considered a genre that’s littered with references from other points in time that lie within the art form itself. The Game’s 2006 “Wouldn’t Get Far” samples a 70s rnb song from Creative Source, which adds one layer of meaning upon which he, towards the end of the song, falls into a monologue where he talks about seeing the same video vixen in multiple artists’ videos. He ultimately takes these references to absurd places, as he claims to have seen the same “groupie” in everything from a Kanye West music video to a video where Oprah provides coverage of Hurricane Katrina. In this portion of the song, The Game references a Snoop Dogg outro from Tupac’s 1996 “All Bout U” as he mimics the format of the outro on this earlier song, while he also plays homage to the rapper directly in a way that adds on to the joke, as he says, “Then I flip the muh’fuckin channel/Checking out my uncle Snoop Dogg video/And I see the same bitch, that was in my video.” In this way, such examples show references can happen within the genre beyond geographic location, across decades.

We can talk endlessly about the ways in which rap songs submerge the listener in an ocean of meaning that can be best understood by examining all of its parts. Its lyrics can be read and interpreted through an understanding of the nature of words, their order, and the way they sound phonetically, which includes intonation and inflection, as well as their overall meaning (and for the purposes of this post, we’ll refer to all of this as a base line). In this way, they can be read like poetry. Adlibs add another layer to this, as they are ways in which an artist can interact directly with their own base line of lyrics. References and homage can come in many forms, from samples, to quoting lines from other work, to patterning a beat after a regional style or subgenre. Essentially, in order to grasp such work, we as listeners have to pull these components apart in order to rationally grasp these smaller elements at all points, which we do in an attempt to break down that which might not be immediately apparent when we attempt to engage with such work as a whole. What we have when we are listening to this kind complex layering is a confrontation with the sublime (here, I am using Kant’s notion). It is only after being confronted with the incomprehensible whole that rational attempts at ascertainment seem possible.

Though the argument that the internet has made cross talk between regions faster and more accessible still holds water to some degree, there is still specificity among areas, and moreover, such regional exchange within rap predates the internet. For instance, though artists like the City Girls have sampled older songs from rappers outside their region like Salt ‘N Pepa, (who in turn sampled artists outside the genre like Parliament Funkadelic) the modern duo adds regional aspects from their hometown of Miami. This tends to include bold horns that are reminiscent of the area’s brass bands, area specific slang, and thematic elements which include the woes of being a woman in love, à la New Orleans’s Mia X. This is often paired with an assertive, brazen notion of sexuality and tales of felonious activity in the vein of fellow Miami natives Trina and Trick Daddy, (a torch which has also been carried on by rapper Sukihana, who has also dipped into the regional sound). However, though locality can bear a big influence on the sound and references a rapper makes, theme and content can also play a role. Another Miami rapper, Rick Ross is often placed into the category of Mafioso Rap, a subgenre whose thematic elements of luxurious excess and a fascination with Italian organized crime stems from New York’s Kool G Rap, and are best typified by Notorious BIG’s Ready to Die, Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt, and Lil Kim’s La Bella Mafia

Maybe instead of the internet facilitating this exchange, it is the genre itself that functions in such a way that it intrinsically lends to this kind of digital movement. In general, regional specific elements within hip hop tend to absorb sounds from other subgenres, both within the genre as a whole as well as outside of itself entirely. It does this while it weaves in and out through time through more than the use of direct samples, but also through the use of lyrical references to other songs which are then blent together into original works. More than that, the genre often contains aspects of homage where an artist mimics or references another rappers style or flow, or through patterning a beat in the vein of a regional style. In this way, hip hop carries with it layers of complexity. Such layers, tell the story of the ways in which black subjects have been shuffled and dispersed throughout America, which effective maps a decades’ long internal dialogue between regions, generations, and artists, and ultimately tells the story of divestment that, in the process, collapses a complex history into a landscape through which listeners must traverse. 

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