Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Singularity of Funk (Part I)

I started reading Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near recently and one of the central ideas of the book is a prediction that technological innovation will reach a stage, in the very near future, where biology and technology will become indistinguishable. In other words, technology will become so advanced that it will allow us to "crack the code" of the brain and essentially "develop" our own consciousness manually. He calls this moment The Singularity. This raises a lot of serious questions for me, most importantly: what is the future of our Funking?

Well, with the proliferation of hip-hop artists (Lil' Wayne, Kanye, T-Pain, etc.) using Auto-Tune to synthesize their voices, it seems that the future is now. Jay-Z stirred a bit of controversy lately by calling for the death of Autotune-produced hip-hop, which he said was hurting the music he so desperately loves. Jay said he knew enough was enough when he saw Wendy's "Frosty Posse" commercial.

First of all, he's got a good point about the Wendy's commercial. It's funny and makes you feel bad about ever liking T-Pain (as we should).

But before we allow Rev. Carter to lecture us about the evils of commercials that use silly technology to strain the credibility of "real hip hop," I hope no one has forgotten his own foray into Super Bowl marketing back in 2007.

Budweiser sponsors Shula versus Jiggaman. I couldn't figure out who I felt more sorry for: Don Shula for having obviously hit rock bottom, or myself for ever buying a Jay-Z album. But I digress...

Auto-Tune is basically an audio processor that changes pitch and allows an artist to produce "flawless" vocals, no matter how untalented they may be (see: Paris Hilton, Brittney Spears, etc.) According to Wikipedia, Cher was one of the first to use the technology to change her voice for that Believe song she made back in 1998 (Be warned: if you click the link the song is going to be in your head for at least a week). But when I think of voice modulation, particularly the kind that's taking place in hip-hop, I think of only one name: Roger Troutman.

You may ask: Who is Roger Troutman?

If you asked that, take a moment to slap yourself. Not hard enough to leave a mark, but enough to get your attention.
Okay, now play this video.

Coming out of Dayton, Ohio, Roger Troutman and his brothers were discovered by George Clinton and cut their teeth on Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking of War Babies album. He and his brothers went on to start Zapp in the early 80s and ended up making some of the most influential Funk cuts of all time. Joints like Computer Love,

More Bounce to the Ounce (produced by Bootsy Collins),

Zapp & Roger Troutman - More Bounce To The Ounce

I Want to Be Your Man,

Zapp & Roger - I Want To Be Your Man

and Slow and Easy

These cuts are still being (over)sampled to this day. Troutman's use of an electronic "talkbox" (the precursor to Auto-Tune) pushed the Funk envelope and presaged (for better or worse) the dawn of the T-Pain era we currently live in.

next: The Funkadelic Matrix


hannah faith said...

great post on the origins of autotune...

and you've seen this - right?

Abdel Shakur said...

Naw, I hadn't seen that. Thanks. I think that might be the funniest thing I've seen in a little bit.

Jackson Brown said...

Snap! Katie Couric should do the news in auto-tune, for realz. :-)

To stray a little off topic, this issue mirrors some of the same concerns in the literary world. Now, suddenly, anyone can be a singer just as, suddenly, everyone is now a writer (yea, blogs--no offense, obviously).

I, personally, am all about the "democratization" of art, though some, like Jay-Z, argue that opening up the field of players through technology correspondingly dilutes the art's quality.

If anything, I think the extra competition helps keep those who produce "great" art sharper. Whereas back in the day, Jay-Z could release a mediocre album like The Dynasty and still sell a few hundred thousand copies, an album like that today would just blur into the field of average competitors (as it should).

Come strong or stay home.


Now allow me to immediately backpedal so that I'm less of a hypocrite when I, myself, neither come strong nor stay home. :-D

Abdel Shakur said...

Naw, I don't think we got to worry about you, JB. You can't help but "bring it."