At Cafe Oto- photo by Fabio Lugaro
"Silent Writing"- Book Excerpt
You could say that David Toop is a something of a polymath. His standing as an genre-straddling musicians was secured decades ago when he was one of the few hand-picked artists for Brian Eno’s Obscure label in the mid-70’s and since then has put out dozens of solo albums and collaborations (including Ryuichi Sakamoto, Thurston Moore, Jon Hassell among others)straddling everything from ambient to experimental to rock and beyond. Some of his wonderfully bizarre band contributions have included The 49 Americans, Dirty Songs, Frank Chickens, General Strike. Not content to rest on his laurels there, he was also responsible for a series of outstanding 1990’s compilations for Virgin Records that were similarly genre-straddling, including Crooning on Venus, Guitars on Mars, Sugar and Poison, Ocean of Sound.
If that wasn’t enough, he’s also had an exalted writing career which has included articles for all kinds of publications across the US and UK (including The Face, Esquire, The Wire) as well as justly-lauded books such as Rap Attack (one of the first books on the style), Ocean of Sound, Exotica and Haunted Weather. His most recent book, Flutter Echo, is his autobiography which came out in Japan in 2018 and now is for published in English by Ecstatic Peace Library and is available here.
Excerpted below is the wonderful story of how an avant gadfly turned into a famed music journalist.
Max Eastley and I often talked about the field in which we worked as a terrain or map of discovery, a journey into landscape, but the landscape we were talking about was a very broad definition of that term: rural and urban landscape, intricate maps of the mind and imagination, the fantastic terrain of hidden, unknown and fictional places that could be conjured up through sound.
Life is equally convoluted, never a straight line of orderly events. Elements of the narrative overlap each other, fall backwards, branch sideways or leap ahead into the future, echoing back and forth like the flutter echo of my childhood. In 1989 I contributed a computer composition ("Cat versus Rat", with spoken narrative by Kazuko Hohki) to Clocks of the Midnight Hour, a documentary film of Max's work. At the time I was working as a music journalist, frustrated by the job and desperate to find my way back into playing music.
One of the positive consequences of becoming a music critic came from buying an Atari 1040 ST computer in 1987. Writing for newspapers like The Times meant I needed to progress from electric typewriter to computer word processing and the Atari was an appealing option because of its inclusion of MIDI ports for electronic keyboards and drum machines. I was inspired by the extraordinary explosion of avant-gardism in dance music – “Acid Tracks” by Phuture and “Washing Machine” by Mr Fingers being two of the most significant example – but one record in particular made me want to explore MIDI sequencing for myself: Model 500’s “Night Drive (Thru Babylon)”, produced by Juan Atkins.
I had flown to New York in August 1987 to interview Jellybean Benitez for The Face magazine. The evening I arrived I went straight out to buy records, heard this track playing in Downtown Records on 6th Avenue and rushed up to the DJ to find out what it was. As it turned out I knew Juan Atkins’ music from his previous group, Cybotron, though I had yet to discover the richness of Detroit techno. In my mind I had grouped Cybotron together with the New York electro hip hop of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock”, The Jonzun Crew’s “Pack Jam” and Warp 9’s “Light Years Away”, the kind of tracks played by Jellybean at The Funhouse in Manhattan and the music that persuaded me to write Rap Attack in 1984.
Records like Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Riot In Lagos” and Haruomi Hosono’s Video Game Music conjured up another kind of landscape, melting away into images, virtual zones and dreams: the dystopian science fiction environments of films like Blade Runner, Stalker and THX 1138, or novels such as Nova Express by William Burroughs, Neuromancer by William Gibson, High Rise by J.G. Ballard, Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick and My Life In the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola. All of these intimations of a future world were reinforced by changes within my own life. Shortly after returning from researching Rap Attack in New York in early 1984 I was invited to write a feature on electro for The Face magazine. At that moment they were looking for a monthly music columnist; my electro feature was accepted, liked and published as a cover feature in May 1984 and so they asked me to write a trial column.
This column, along with many feature articles and interviews for the magazine, turned out to be a long-term job for me, lasting well into the 1990s. For nearly fifteen years I had been close to poverty, struggling from one poorly paid gig to the next, moving frequently from flat to flat, at times having nowhere to live. On holiday in Cornwall with my partner at that time – music writer Sue Steward – I suddenly realised that my knowledge of African-American music history was an invaluable asset, a means to research and better understand the origins of hip hop. I loved the early records – 12 inch singles by Funky Four Plus One More, Sequence, Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five - but more to the point I understood something of their origins in rhythm and blues, gospel, soul, jazz, radio DJs and African American oral traditions.
The short journalistic pieces I was writing up until 1984 were not enough to lift me out of the stagnation of my life. A book was more substantial. If I could find a publisher then the anxiety of living on an economic edge might be lessened, if only because it could create new possibilities. Though lacking in confidence I wrote a synopsis of what I thought the book would be, posted it to a small selection of likely publishers (a business of which I knew next to nothing) and waited. To my surprise I had two offers. Both were from small independent publishers but I was content with that – it was a world in which I felt comfortable. I went with Pluto Press, signed a contract with my editor-to-be, Pete Ayrton (later the owner of Serpent’s Tail, publisher of my next three books), then wondered how to start.
My first step was to go to New York. Knowing it would be freezing in January I bought a warm coat and booked a return flight. A photographer I knew through Collusion magazine – Patricia Bates – already had experience of photographing in the New York City club scene. I stayed in her Manhattan apartment and together we set up a packed itinerary of interviews, me asking the questions, her taking the photographs. We fixed meetings in the mornings, then went out until the early hours of the next morning. In two weeks we went to clubs like The Loft, Broadway International, the Funhouse (where I met Paul Simon in the DJ booth with Jellybean), the Copa Cabana, Danceteria and The Roxy and recorded interviews with many artists - Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Spoonie G, Lotti Golden of Warp 9, Double Trouble, Arthur Baker, The Fearless Four, Kurtis Blow – along with record label owners like Aaron Fuchs, the notorious Paul Winley and the legendary Bobby Robinson, a veteran of the R&B business whose labels had included Enjoy, Fire, Fury and Whirlin’ Disc.
It was the second time I had been to New York but this time my fourteen-day return ticket meant there was little opportunity to do anything other than focus on hip hop. It was a fascinating time to be observing the scene as an outsider, a time of change as the second phase of hip hop (five years after hip hop had become known to the wider world through records like “Rapper’s Delight”) came to an end. Artists like Grandmaster Flash were trying to regroup, disillusioned by the way they had been cheated out of money and lost position to other members of their own crews. The music was in its electronic period but Run-D.M.C. were coming up. For all I knew, hip hop might disappear, just another brief fashion running its course. In fact it began to grow to enormous proportions, almost before the book was published, and by 1985 it had moved from small clubs to stadiums. Of course I had no idea of this at the time and certainly never envisaged having to write a second version in 1991 and then a further update in 1999 (by which time I decided that three versions were enough).
It was also an interesting time for research because of the access I was given. Most of the records were released by small independent labels run from tiny offices. There were no public relations people to stand in the way or make it difficult for me to speak to artists. We would show up at Arthur Baker’s studio, for example, and rappers would come by. Many years later the situation was totally different. Successful rappers often felt no need to talk to the British press so made themselves inaccessible. But in 1984 it was a novelty to speak to a white person from England, particularly one who was prepared to listen to their stories in detail.
Back home in London I gave myself three months to write the book, just long enough for the money from the advance to last. Looking back at that time I think of it as an apprenticeship, a crash course in learning how to write at book length, at speed, to process a lot of information in a short time and write it in such a way that it held the reader’s attention.
I was 34 years old. The decision to write Rap Attack had come at the point when I was exhausted by the struggle to survive and felt an overpowering need for more security. Having been involved in the collective, avant-garde, penniless and extremely unglamorous improvised music scene for many years I was suddenly thrown into book publishing and from there straight into the world of The Face, at that point one of the most influential, fashionable and visually innovative magazines on the planet. Although The Face didn’t pay well – it was, after all, another independent magazine surviving from month to month with very high production costs – it gave me a regular income and opened the door to an unexpected career in music journalism. Being a regular contributor of columns and features to the ultra-fashionable Face meant I was commissioned to write for publications that wouldn’t have given me a second glance in other circumstances, from Elle, Vogue and Tatler to the Sunday Times Magazine and American magazines like Interview and Spin. In most cases I wouldn’t have given them a second glance either but suddenly I was a music critic, whether I wanted it or not.
Also see our interview with David Toop
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