Friday, September 28, 2012

Five things I learned from reading Elijah Wald's The Dozens: A History of Rap's Mama

Warning: This entry contains sexual language and concepts. Reader discretion is advised.

1. The etymology of the term "the dozens" for traditional African-American jesting/insult games is still largely unknown. Wald spends the most time analyzing the possibility that the dozens were simply meant to be traded in groups of twelve, and he provides quite a few rhymes, mostly of sexual boasting, from the early 20th century which were counting couplets. In turn, these are believed to have come down through the 19th century minstrel tradition (in Biblical rhymes turned to comedic ends) from religious twelves leading all the way back to 17th century Latin catechisms. Another interesting possibility for the origin of the name is that it comes from shooting dice, as 12 or "boxcars" is one of the worst possible results. "Shooting" the dozens was a term used in North Carolina, and Wald cites an unrelated dozens blues couplet from 1937 that goes, "De box cars rollin', de baby's a cryin'/I played yo' mama in the slavery time." (Wald 28)

2. The dozens have always existed on the edge of acceptability in larger white culture, whether through the minstrel tradition (both black and white) or during the rise of jazz, Dixieland, and blues throughout the first third of the 20th century. "The Dirty Dozen No. 2," recorded by bluesman Speckled Red in 1930, was a "radio edit" of the original oral-tradition dirty dozens, and you can see easily where the curse words were replaced by the clean version:
The clock's on the shelf going tick, tick, tick
Your mama's out on the street doin' I don't know which (Wald 49)
You can fill in the original rhyme pretty easily there.

Red's clean version led to (no pun intended) dozens of cover and instrumental versions, which further diluted and bowdlerized the original meaning; even Count Basie had a crack at an instrumental cover rendition. But the "real" dozens still persisted in "party" records and underground dirty recordings, most of them sung by female blues artists, who had a peculiar cultural license to be absolutely filthy in some situations where men couldn't. Blueswoman Victoria Spivey, singer of the "boxcar" rhyme above, put a woman's spin on the dozens by telling all about no-good men in "From 1 to 12 (Dirty Dozen).," and Memphis Minnie's "New Dirty Dozen," which took the opportunity to throw sexual insults at a whole family, Aristocrats-style.

3. Wald spends time seeing how white audiences reacted to the uncensored dozens. One particularly amusing story occurred during World War II (Wald cites several stories of white officers and soldiers reacting with shock or bafflement to the dozens during both World Wars) where a white seaman, Tom Wicker, was put in charge of a boxcar full of black sailors and reacted to an invitation to "suck my black dick" from one of the black soldiers by trading jests:
"Why, your buddy there told me you didn't even have one." A fragment of an old joke flickered in [Wicker's] memory. "Said a hog bit it off."
"Shee-it." The tall black sailor grinned. The other blacks laughed, all of them this time, some obviously in relief, some in derision of the tall boy as he thought up his reply. "You git home, man, you ask your girl friend, see if I ain't broke it off in her pussy." The blacks howled with laughter.
"After mine," Wicker said, hoping for the best, "I reckon she wouldn't even feel that little old biddy toothpick of yours."
There was more laughter and backslapping, and even the other white boys grinned, rather painfully.
In addition, Wald speaks of white immigrant dozens traditions in major cities in America in the middle part of the 20th century, picked up on the streets from African-American peers in cases of cultural mimicry.

4. What is the purpose of the dozens? Wald argues for a number of possible social benefits to the ritual, (echoing parallel African verbal traditions that foster social cohesion), but is also not afraid to tackle the negative aspects of the dozens. While the dozens may have served to defuse physical violence and provide a coming-of-age ritual for African-American youth, the actual insults, say many African-American philosophers and cultural critics, foster negative images of blackness, womanhood, and other possible indicators of cultural self-loathing.

The African origins of the dozens are well-attested, and its ritual and cultural significance proven out time and time again. A near-liturgical series of mother-based anatomical insults are said to help solidify and strengthen the ties between the Dogon and Bozo peoples of West Africa, who held belief in common origins that had weakened over time through a difference in religion (animism vs. Islam, respectively) and taboos that prevent sexual intermingling.

Even with the African origins of the modern dozens solidly proven, Wald can't help but find similar traditions around the globe, in as disparate cultures as Elizabethan England and the Manus society of New Guinea.

5. Wald claims the Dozens are "rap's mama" in the title of the book, and while no one could certainly draw a direct lineage from the cultural phenomenon to hip-hop, the idea of verbal duel supplanting physical is a strong tradition throughout rap's history and pre-history. Wald traces the proto-origins of rap to several threads in the 1970s and previous: comedy albums from Rudy Ray Moore and musical descendants of Speckled Red like Jimmy Castor's "Leroy" series. Mama jokes in rap come to their apex through 2 Live Crew's raunchy, Foxx/Moore-inspired albums and exist as a connecting thread through gangsta rap's violent and sexual boasts.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Reading the Future and the Past in a Teacup

A while back on my gaming blog I posted that getting no results for a Google search for "secret history of tea" was one of the saddest Google results I had ever seen. Obviously, as is common in the ways of these things, there are now 5.

But let's back up. My wife manages a tea shop (shameless plug shameless plug). She has been on a vintage tea cup buying spree lately, and this weekend she brought home a piece that drew me like a moth to flame, or like an Englishman to a cuppa.

To quote from the description of the cup on the website, "The interior of the cup is decorated with the signs of the planets, and common symbols seen in Tasseography (telling fortunes using tea leaves). The saucer is decorated with the signs of the zodiac."

That's just awesome, is it not? Let's break this down, though, because tasseography is super interesting and we need to cover it in detail before looking at this specific cup.

All things considered, Western tasseography is pretty recent because Europe didn't start drinking coffee and tea until the mid-17th century. Using the random configurations of the remnants of a cup of coffee or tea finds its origins in other "random spill" style divinations, mostly done by spilling molten wax or metal into a vessel of cool water and reading the resulting shapes. Of course, this all goes back much further to the rather bloody affair of haruspicy which stands as the forefather of all shape-reading-based methods of western divination.

Surely, much like the ancient human past-times of idly finding shapes in the clouds or the stars, some early Western tea-drinker noticed an evocative shape at the bottom his or her new-fangled cup of tea or coffee and decided it might be a sign. And to be honest, looking for literal shapes in a cup of coffee or tea feels a bit mundane, as are the standard explanations for the shapes provided by "A Highland Seer" in the 1920 book Tea-Cup Reading, and the Art of Fortune-Telling by Tea Leaves. Literality and homeyness and familiarity are the order of the day: HORSE-SHOE means luck, SNAKE means misfortune and treachery.

Which is what makes the cup in the photo above so awesome. Because all of a sudden, folk magic is supplemented with the Hermetic astrological tradition. Cups like these were actually fairly common in 20th century Britain. Sure, suggestions for common shapes are traced all around the inside of the cup, but at the bottom of the cup are the seven planets, so now you can place your HORSE-SHOE in Venus and say you'll be lucky in love, or your SNAKE in Mercury and say that you'll be betrayed in travel or in communication. The signs of the zodiac on the saucer? Well, one doesn't usually spill one's leaves into the saucer but perhaps a drop of tea hits one or more signs? All of a sudden you have three sets of magical data to interpret and interpolate, all interrelated.

What do I want now, after researching all this? I'm greedy. I want a teacup with the 36 decans on the inside.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

And if the elevator tries 2 bring u down

It's probably best not to ask what rabbit hole I fell into that led me to this clip of Prince talking about how we're all being exposed to mind controlling chemtrails from jets to make us angry and fighty all the time...

... but it's when he says "when I found out there were eight presidents before George Washington," THAT's the point that made me sit up and pay attention.

He was speaking, of course, of the eight men to hold the title of President of the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, but the idea of a line of Secret Presidents predating Washington that THEY don't want you to know about was just impossible for me not to Renfuse about it.

The Presidents That Time Forgot. Lost in the great cataclysm of 178N-178Y (notation developed to indicate the later years of the conflict that retroactively ceased to exist), these men sacrificed their lives and their  legacy to keep the dark mysteries of the Secret Masters hidden forever.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Kennedy Fractals

Every 3-6 months or so I'll dive deeply back into the Kennedy assassination. It'll usually start with a re-read of Don DeLillo's Libra, and then either branch off into a rewatch of Oliver Stone's JFK, the British documentary The Men Who Killed Kennedy, or a re-read of James Ellroy's Underworld USA trilogy. This time I decided to go a different route. I asked Amazon to provide me with a good primer on the assassination. Having already bought and been disappointed in Four Days in November/Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugilosi I decided I needed something a little more... well, conspiratorial.

And wow, did Jim Marrs's Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy fit the bill1. An extensive catalog of all extant JFK assassination conspiracy theories available at the time of publication (1989), it's an excellent concordance to all the other JFK conspiracy media I mentioned above.

There's so much I didn't know in this book that there was no way that a "Five Things" post would be sufficient. But I want to focus in on one of them in particular, and that is the House Select Committee on Assassinations.

Did you know that the House of Representatives in 1979 concluded that John F. Kennedy was probably slain as the result of conspiracy? I didn't. Sure, I may have faintly remembered the afterword to Stone's JFK where this was mentioned, but to read it in Marrs's book was a revelation. To realize that the entirety of the Warren Commission report was admitted by the selfsame government 15 years later to have been utterly worthless was shocking.

Marrs attributes the willingness and political clout of Congress after Watergate to delve deep into government secrecy to getting this far, but admits there were still huge obstructions. Committee heads suspected nearly everyone hired by the Committee of being a plant for the CIA: paranoia and secrecy ran rampant, hampering the Committee's ability to conduct its investigation.

Other notes on the House Select Committee: everyone talks about the rash of suicides, car crashes, drug overdoses, heart attacks, sudden bouts of cancer, and deaths by karate chop in the immediate aftermath of the JFK killing, but no one talks about the second wave of deaths in the late '70s around the Committee's activities. Probable CIA asset George de Mohrenschildt and mob boss Sam Giancana both died of gunshot wounds before they were set to testify (before separate House committees) as did William C. Sullivan of the FBI and Dallas radio host Lou Staples.

There's also the Dallas Police radio recording, another piece of assassination lore I'd never heard of before reading Marrs's book and the key piece of evidence that led the Committee to conclude a conspiracy killed the President. Amazing that in this day and age of advanced computer technology, according to Wikipedia, "digital restoration of the Dictabelt seemed a more distant prospect, with both funding and final approval for the project unlikely to be secured in the near future."

Finally, the life of Lee Harvey Oswald gets a thorough look in Marrs's book. Marrs leans toward the theory that Oswald was military intelligence from the get-go, and that he was trained very early to come across as a misfit, loner, and potential Communist asset within the U.S. Marine Corps and its base at Atsugi. Marrs even entertains the far-out theory that the Oswald who returned from Russia was a Soviet spy and that this spy's body was swapped out for the "real" Oswald post-burial. Oswald's obvious tendency to "double" or "triple" in the months prior to the assassination, working for extreme right-winger Guy Banister while handing out leaflets for Fair Play for Cuba, does lend credence to the "long time intelligence agent" theory, in any event.

The Kennedy assassination truly is like a fractal; it's fully of smaller more minute details seemingly onto infinity. There's no end to the spirals one can spin down.

1 Let's be honest, though: Marrs is a crackpot. He hits the early '90s conspiracy trifecta: JFK, UFOs, and remote viewing.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Future Path Not Taken: The Magic of the Nixie Clock

I'm not technically-minded. I was never big into those 200-in-1 kits you got at Radio Shack. I was more into Transformers than Legos. My choice of toys marked me as a humanities geek from an early age. At the same time, I have a great love of technology-qua-technology. Especially forgotten or vintage technology. A couple of years ago someone I know linked to a YouTube video of an antique 1960s modem that still worked, and I fell in love:

So a couple of weeks ago I had occasion to go up to my company's internal IT department to request a new security key. Lo and behold the cubes are filled with all kinds of geek ephemera, and most notably, the dude I got my key from had a Nixie clock in his cube. I stared. And I probably looked like a dork in the process.

The Nixie tube is a perfect example of thoroughly obsolete technology that only exists today for aesthetic reasons. The Nixie had a very short shelf life; basically the 1960s. Once LEDs and LCDs were available for cheaper and smaller uses in calculators and watches, the Nixie was a dinosaur. So the Nixie display speaks of a very specific time and place: the last generation of computers before the microchip, the apotheosis of the vacuum tube.

About the best example of this I could give you is the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where Heywood Floyd and the other investigators are headed to the TMA-1 site on the Moon and their shuttle has a very prominent Nixie numerical display.

Sure, it dates the movie. But this sort of analog display also co-exists in a universe with flatscreen tablet computers and advanced AIs. It's a much cooler, better, more unexpected mashup of styles than steampunk. It's basically vacuumpunk.

Yeah, this kind of intentionally-archaic tech is pretty much my bread and butter. A few weeks ago I posted an image collage from Lost and the Swan Station is a great example of that 70s high-tech retro I love. There's definitely another post on this in the works, specifically about 2001 and how it kicked off a decade of gleaming white futuristic surfaces that eventually got grungier and grimier. But with that in mind, one last image from an iconic science fiction movie, where it's gleaming monochrome surfaces vs. cobbled-together space junk to get you thinking about this.

Luke's targeting computer's numerics... awfully reminiscent of a Nixie display, no?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Hexagon Transmissions: Boards of Canada and Nostalgia

Q: Why did the educational TV films from the National Film Board of Canada, that you named yourself after, have such a big impact on you and your music if you'd only been exposed to them for a year?

A: We saw them in both Canada and Scotland. The films were on television in the UK for years... Back then television was a really big deal for us because we were so bored. We weren't old enough to go to the cinema and we were in a town where there was absolutely bugger all to do. So we just went out and vandalized property. [Laughs] Or sneak in video nasties from the local video store. Or got our friends together to make films. We had our crappy early-80s bikes and went out with my dad's super-8 camera making films.1

"If it doesn't affect me emotionally it doesn't interest me. I think a lot of it is trying to capture a nostalgic feeling buried somewhere in our minds. We are nostalgic people trying to get back moments from our pasts."

"Music for commercials, documentary soundtracks and children's TV themes. The spaces in between the music you're supposed to listen to. That's where our interest lies. These melodies might only last a second at the end of a TV programme but they are quietly more important to the public psyche than most pop music."2

Q: What's the fascination with children's voices? Is it to do with a nostalgia for childhood?

A: It's something that has a peculiar effect in music, it ought not to be there, especially in atonal, synthetic music. It's completely out of place, and yet in that context that you can really feel the sadness of a child's voice. Being a kid is such a transitory, fleeting part of your lifespan. If you have siblings, then if you think about it, you'll have known them as adults for a lot longer than you ever knew them as children. It's like a little kid lost, gone.3

I hereby nominate Boards of Canada as official house band of Renfusa.

1 Pitchfork, "The Downtempo Duo," Heiko Hoffman, September 26, 2005
2 Jockey Slut magazine, "Board Clever," Richard Hector-Jones, Vol. 2 No. 13 (April/May 1998) 
3 NME, "The Most Mysterious & Revered Men in Electronica," John Mulvey, February 23, 2002