Perfect Sound Forever

The Immortals of Afro-Futurist music

Sun Ra, Kool Keith, Andre 3000

PRODIGIES OF DISTORTION
By Vaughan Smith
(August 2010)

Upon learning of the 1986 Challenger space-shuttle explosion, Sun Ra said that NASA "lacked discipline and a knowledge of music."

The duality of his persona as both an ancient Afro-Egyptian god and a divine cosmic messenger from the planet Saturn has never been easy to reconcile with his impact on modern music. Sun Ra was a bandleader, composer, prodigious keyboardist and musical innovator. His music freely moved from doo-wop ditties to crushing free-jazz organ-noise clusters to swing-band Fletcher Henderson renditions. Sun Ra never sat well within any musical genre or category.

If any imparted influence of Sun Ra's can be discerned it is that of the struggle for black people and black music to transcend beyond any racial traditions and limitations. Ra demanded what until then only white European musicians and composers could achieve; immortality. Sun Ra perceived the black people as a nation on the edge of history; still living within a segregated cultural mythology existing parallel to the modern world. He also saw the potential that this cultural mythology could afford: "Myth speaks of the impossible, of immortality. [Black people] need to try the impossible."

In his biography of Sun Ra, John Szwed postulates that "black music represented for Western music a kind of pre-electronic distortion, an irruption into the system, a breaking of the rules of musical order." Sun Ra, along with musicians as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, King Tubby, Afrika Bambaataa and Frankie Knuckles, would extend this notion of the ‘black distortion' by pioneering the use and misuse of electronic technology in their music. They turned the distortion already associated with being black into a tangible technique. This embracement of distortion would become the emblem of alienation and create the distinctive sound of modern black music.

The positioning of black people as aliens exiled to a foreign land is dominant in Sun Ra's numerous complicated and verbose pamphlets, essays and orations. Just as complex were his explanations for the connection between the ancient Israelites and African-Americans. At the Knitting Factory in 1988, his pre-concert lecture on the word ‘nigger' and its linguistic relationship with the Hebrew word 'ger,' which means 'stranger' or 'alien', may have been lost on most of the audience but for Sun Ra it was an intellectual and spiritual culmination of a daily battle with the alienation of being black in America.

Funk godfather George Clinton is clearly a kindred spirit. His own brand of Afro-Futurist mythology obsessively dominated his output from the mid-70s. Famously he said of Sun Ra: "This boy was definitely out to lunch – the same place I eat at." The acknowledgment and thematic cohesion continues with Clinton's own pseudo-didactic pamphlets and essays which list Sun Ra and his Arkestra as a sort of patriarch and prototype of his own groups' mission for musical enlightenment. The many P-Funk related bands and characters on-stage and off also mirrored Sun Ra's ever-evolving band-names and Astro-Black wardrobe. Clinton's mission is softly announced in the track "P-Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up)":

Good evening. Do not attempt to adjust your radio, there is nothing wrong. We have taken control as to bring you this special show.
This gentle revolutionary then promises that "we have returned to claim the Pyramids." While generally, his manifesto may have stuck to Ra's line of tearing the world from its Western-European hegemony and reclaiming the ancient heritage of the black people, Clinton and his music were ultimately more concerned with shaking booties than the immortalization of the black people.

Sun Ra's and Clinton's successors in the '80's and '90's would be naturally found in the new black musical language hip-hop. Kool Keith, originally a member of New York's Ultramagnetic MCs group has spent the last 20 years winding his own unique, often challenging and very strange path as a solo rapper into an obscure yet highly respected position of an avant-garde untouchable. Keith Matthew Thornton shares with Sun Ra and Clinton not only a taste for Afro-Futurism but also a serious jones for far-out identities and bizarre costumes. Like Ra, he throws any sort of public identification and marketing clarity out the window by using a new personality and character for almost every album. Keith's best-selling and critically acclaimed Dr. Octagon character was literally killed off in a following album by his new alter-ego Dr. Dooom, After that came his famous Black Elvis character. A comprehensive list of Keith's personas would possibly number into the hundreds. Keith explains: "I peeped what George Clinton was doing. I kind of took that into consideration. But I took it in a more daredevil way. He was part of other groups – I went totally off by myself."1

Kool Keith takes Ra's ambition for black people to do the impossible and become immortal also just as seriously: "I can do whatever I want to do because it's me. My thing is to flood the universe, because I am the celestial."2 Besides outer-space and immortality, Keith's primary targets are black musicians selling out and ‘Tomming' to a white audience. Particularly revealing is "Step-N-Fetchers":

A lot of soul sellin', tuxedo rebellin',
They posted up with a lot of Duke Ellin'
Retarded storytellin'
Blacks with white lips, chewin' chicken and watermelon.
Unlike the everlasting love and enlightenment from the patriarchal Sun Ra and the 'Chocolate Milky Way' ecstatic love-in of Funkadelic or Parliament, Kool Keith's stage persona is resolutely arrogant, individualistic and proudly misanthropic. André 3000, or André Benjamin, of OutKast is in direct contrast. He is enlightened, inclusive and almost genteel by comparison. Benjamin, with these altruistic traits, stands well apart from other the typically misogynistic and belligerent MCs and in particular, the ludicrously excessive Kool Keith. Benjamin, however can also be considered the softer side of Keith. Together, they share a stream-of-conscience rhyme flow, utter flamboyance of ego and a fondness for overt weirdness. They both effortlessly break the rules and trends in their productions and beats. And, of course, distortion is a favourite weapon of choice. Keith isn't unaware of this comparison and singles Benjamin out as an impostor and thief (on "Mental Side Effects"):
In your mind you think you're incredible
But Benny, I wore the Black Elvis wig
Now you wear it
I took off the wig, you just puttin' it on.
Benjamin's thoughts on Kool Keith are unknown but his lineage from Sun Ra and George Clinton is more openly embraced. OutKast collaborated with Clinton on "Synthesizer" and OutKast's roots, like Sun Ra's, are firmly southern. Benjamin's artistic home-base and his whole musical and lyrical world is hewn from the flesh of Atlanta, Georgia. Much in the same way, Sun Ra's youth as a southern black man in Birmingham, Alabama deeply affected the man and musician he would later become.

OutKast's 1996 album ATLiens, conceptualised by Benjamin, was clearly stating that being black was akin to alienation. And that being southern was alienation, and that being an Atlantan was alienation, especially in the West/East Coast-centric world of hip-hop. The title song sets out Benjamin's determination to create the impossible for black people:

Because the future of the world depends on
Therefore, if not the child we raise goin' have that nigga syndrome
Or will it know to be the hard regardless of the skintone
I really feel that if we tune it, it just might get picked on
Or will it give a fuck about what others say and get gone
The alienators cause we different keep your hands to the sky.
Just like his Afro-Futurist predecessors, success for Benjamin was certainly not hinged on his predominantly avant-garde production style, with its embrace of genre mash-ups and tonal dissonance. For the most part, his outrageous interviews, outfits and cosmic and astrological proclamations would almost destroy the traditional hip-hop fan-base OutKast had initially enjoyed. Eventually his need to work within his own brand of hip-hop would, if not completely break-up the multi-million album selling group, then at the very least see to its permanent splitting of personalities.

This schizoid personality of OutKast is most evident with the 2003 duo/solo concept album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Benjamin may have written 3 of the 5 worldwide hits on that album but he still wrote them to sit amongst one of hip-hop's strangest, most unhip-hop albums of all time. Big Boi's disc plays mostly as middle-of-the-road hip-hop but Benjamin's disc is a minimalist pop, jazz and R&B record in which he plays the role of his own deified immortal of choice: Saint Valentine.

Sun Ra, George Clinton, Kool Keith and André Benjamin can be easily singled out as some obvious keystones within the still hard-to-visualise Afro-Futurist musical landscape. But this is only because it is still very difficult to track the trajectories and influences of other musicians within its wide fringes. The current crop of chiefly hip-hop artists following Sun Ra's vision of immortal black people and music would include artists such as Lil' Wayne, Madlib, DJ Spooky, Bootsy Collins and Lee Scratch Perry.

This Afro-Futurist bloodline may be somewhat muddy, but the intention of the musicians and the music itself has always remained clear; to launch the black people beyond the limitations of our planet and into the realm of impossibility. Throughout his long career Sun Ra wrote hundreds of numbered pieces titled 'Discipline.' These were mostly improvisational works designed to elevate the senses and souls of the musicians and the audience. Perhaps NASA should have played some of these pieces before launching the Challenger space-shuttle.


Footnotes:

1. Interview with Davey D after concert on "Ultra-Octa-Doom (aka In High Definition)" DVD, 2007

2. Interview with John Papageorge, page 5.


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