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Fade to Black:

Record Production & Cultural Authenticity

 

Mike Alleyne

Department of Recording Industry

Middle Tennessee State University


“It takes courage to leave all your security blanket behind and jump without a parachute.”
Carlos Santana

“You have to make sure the technology doesn’t outpace the humanity.
Quincy Jones (Cogan & Clark, 6)


Intro/Fade In


People take authenticity very seriously because what is “real” to us truly matters, but the discourse of authenticity is always affected by perceptions of reality within which we hold emotional investments. In popular music, authenticity isn’t really just about where you’re from; it’s also about where you’re coming from, artistically or otherwise. However, where you are from in terms of genre, race, and aesthetic perceptions can affect the way the artist envisions him or herself as well as the ways that the producer hears the music. This paper is actually an attempt to examine relationships between record production and race to reflect the myriad complexities and nuances – the grey areas - rather than seeing the issue merely in black or white. While I’m not suggesting that authenticity and race have not been components in sometimes ruthless commercial compromises and hegemony, as some of my selected examples aim to illustrate, the creative circumstances are often multidimensional. As Allen Moore has suggested, authenticity is constructed in part by loaded terms which we ascribe to the music, such as ‘honest’ and ‘real’ (Moore, 209). Whereas Moore’s analysis was confined to rock and folk, implicitly foregrounding white artists, I’ll be focusing on four significant black artists with white producers, spanning several decades.

The concept of cultural authenticity continually reasserts itself in relation to black artists.  The Hip-Hop mantra of “keeping it real” is partially an expression of perceived soundscape authenticity which is “real” only in so far as that reality constitutes digitally generated loops and sampling as an essential part of its fabric, in what Paul Gilroy calls “the age of digital simulation” (Gilroy, 103). This is merely one example representing the mechanically constructed “reality” of popular music, so the authenticities I discuss here are somewhat relative since some degree of technological mediation always occurs in order for us to hear a recording. Any discussion of the concept in the context of black popular music risks reinforcing a type of essentialism which has arguably become a driving force in the recording industry itself. I’m going to focus on cultures of record production, and ways in which their authenticity or lack thereof bears a tangible, aural relationship to race. Some of the controversies I’ll discuss suggest that not only is there life after death, but that there is also more death after death, if the dire opinions of some critics are to be believed

    This paper deliberately has a title with visual as well as aural resonance because the artists’ colour immediately informs the reception of the work, and artists other than those under primary examination here have consciously reflected this awareness. Consider briefly two albums exemplifying this consciousness: Guitarist Vernon Reid’s Mistaken Identity (1996 Sony), with its assault on literal and metaphoric racial caricature in popular culture, was coincidentally co-produced by Teo Macero whose work with Miles Davis will be addressed shortly. The cover, the accompanying artwork, and most importantly the music, openly challenge black cultural stereotypes, creating a bold cross-genre collage of rock, funk, hip-hop and jazz to create something else no doubt informed by Reid’s time with black rock group, Living Colour. In a 1989 interview, Reid also emphasized the centrality of race to Hendrix’s relevance, citing its organic contextual infusion into his performances of both “Machine Gun” and “The Star Spangled Banner” (Philips, 166).

     In 1992 Mother’s Finest, a multiracial black metal funk outfit from Georgia, released the unambiguously titled Black Radio Won’t Play This Record. Both cases attack the inauthentic cultural visions too frequently imposed on music by black artists. Particularly from the mid-Sixties, Miles Davis rebelled against the idea of becoming an artist in stasis, a museum piece disconnected from the currents of the present or the future.

Miles Davis & Bitches Brew

In a recent Billboard magazine interview, saxophonist and Miles Davis alumnus, Wayne Shorter, made a telling comment on jazz and commercialism:

If something makes a lot of money, it doesn't make it cool.
People worry about missing out on that pot of gold. But what
they're really missing out on is their creative process. It's about
evolving (Ouellette, 23).


It’s ironic that Davis’ most artistically risky and seemingly uncommercial venture of his career would give him his first gold album, while still serving the creative and evolutionary processes which Shorter valorizes. In several ways, Bitches Brew was the antithesis of conventional record production, though these musical experiments were preceded by similar though less expansive explorations on 1969s In a Silent Way. The fluid, exploratory, intuitive improvised performance interaction is what is captured on record, making the production the selective documentation of a process in action. It’s the sort of audio witchcraft implied by the album’s title, with the studio itself as the boiling cauldron within which the brew coheres.

 While this isn’t the time to fully explore Miles’ antagonistic relationship with jazz purists, one of his comments about this particular phase in his career has especially broad application for all record producers and musicians:

All these purists are walking around talking about how electrical
instruments will ruin music. Bad music is what will ruin music, not
the instruments musicians choose to play. I don’t see nothing wrong
with electrical instruments as long as you get great musicians who
will play them right (Davis, 295).

He found such musicians, though naturally his electrical emphasis ran entirely against the grain of what were then considered to be standard elements and stylistic approaches in jazz record production.

    I told Teo Macero, who was producing the record, to just let the
tapes run and get everything we played, told him to get everything
and not to be coming in interrupting, asking questions. “Just stay
in the booth and worry about getting down the sound” is what I told
him (Davis, 299).

The actual conceptual approach was certainly far from alien in jazz recording practice, as Miles himself notes in comparing the Bitches Brew sessions to “old-time jam sessions we used to have up at Minton’s back in the old bebop days” (Davis, 300). Ironically, by reaffirming the improvisatory process which gives jazz its innate freedom, the album offended the hardcore traditionalists who could not embrace the iconoclastic electrical context within which the process was taking place. It was an authentic process expressed through inauthentic articulation, at least to the ears of the intransigent old-school critics. As Carlos Santana notes,  “Miles and his musicians were hearing music both in and outside of the tradition”, and he further suggests that by following this creative instinct, “Miles...erased all paths back to his past” (Santana, 9). Biographer Quincy Troupe alternatively describes Bitches Brew as “the direction (in which) musical production was about to go...not a break with the past but rather an extension, a continuation...of a direction Miles Davis had been exploring and going in for some time” (Troupe, 26).

    Regarding the precise degree of producer Teo Macero’s creative input, Miles is typically uncompromising and forthright, asserting that the definitive shaping of the project emerged from himself, not his producer, as several writers seem to have subsequently suggested (Davis, 300). Despite Davis’ problems with historical revisionism, the key point, recognized by Santana, is that “he and producer Teo Macero began to view the studio and all its technological options as another instrument” (Santana, 11). Moreover, the innovation associated with this album lies in the way that the conceptual and technological dimensions were allied with skilled human improvisation in a sonic framework uncommon to the genre.

This was a post-production album assembled through extensive tape editing and looping, not merely musically improvised, but technologically too, combining splicing with selective overdubbing – an heretical new dimension to a time-honored process in jazz, but one which had already been introduced to the rock world, most notably through The Beatles Sergeant Pepper album. As drummer Lenny White recalls, “Half a year later a record came out that was totally different, because they’d taken the front end of a tune and put that in the middle and so on” (Tingen, 67). Teo Macero’s editing applications prefigure the conceptual actualities of sequencing programs like Digital Performer and Pro-Tools, though the current ease of digital editing shares little in common with the variables of dealing with physical tape. Nonetheless, Brian Eno is aware that Miles “took the performance to pieces, spatially” (Szwed, 298). Macero highlights the importance of his production role in this detailed description:

    I had carte blanche to work with the material. I could move
    anything around and what I would do is record everything, right
    from beginning to end, mix it all down and then take all those
    tapes back to the editing room and listen to them and say: ‘This
    is a good little piece here, this matches with that, put this here,’
    etc., and then add all the effects....

He never saw the work that had to be done on those tapes.
I’d have to work on those tapes for four or five weeks to make
them sound right (Tingen, 67).

Whether the fragmented nature of its construction communicates itself to the audience almost certainly depends on the listener. Let us not forget that this was originally a double album as well, one of the least commercial formats for a purported jazz release. To complicate authenticity matters further, percussionist James Mtume (who played in a later line-up with Davis) questions the very premise that this was jazz at all.

In any event, Bitches Brew encompasses production collisions and synchronicities between jazz, rock and funk, between composition and improvisation, between recording a performance and technologically ‘performing’ a recording through its reconstruction, and ultimately between accepted perceptions of authenticity in studio practice, and innovations beyond its established boundaries. The essential problem here, of course, is that despite Davis’ outstanding artistic contributions to jazz up to that point and the accompanying critical acclaim resulting in his persona being perceived as wholly intrinsic to jazz, his work was suddenly being condemned and deemed inauthentic. The implications of this discrimination were, among others, that “real” jazz had a fixed and unchangeable acoustically focused instrumental format and a code of performance modes virtually unsullied by the commercial mainstream, and further that any nonconformist music – even if it was created by an icon of the genre – simply could not be either jazz or legitimate art. With the creative ambition compounded by studio wizardry altering the nature of the recorded works, this created an implacable conflict. One of the implicit assumptions of critics though was that fusion with already hybrid forms somehow made jazz less black and therefore less authentic.

Remarkably even the 1999 reissue, The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, has generated authenticity controversy. Teo Macero refused an invitation to participate in the assembly process, being evidently dissatisfied with Sony/Columbia’s reissue strategies. He has stated that  “Miles Davis would never have agreed to the unreleased material being released, nor to the way the original material has been remixed and remastered” (Tingen, 73). Although there seems to be broad consensus that the alterations have liberated the high end of the recording, adding crispness and clarity where little previously existed in the original mix, the post-production of Bitches Brew remains a bewitching topic.


Jimi Hendrix: Posthumous Axis


    One could argue that Jimi Hendrix represented an aesthetic of creative and imaginative authenticity which he himself distinguished from the far more consciously market-oriented approach of Motown in that era. He described that sound as “artificial and commercial and very, very electronically made...a synthetic soul sound.” (McDermott & Kramer, 44). Although Hendrix’s own studio experimentations didn’t lack electronic wizardry, it was arguably more organic music from the heart and soul for the heart and soul, with commercial imperatives being imposed externally from management and record company.

Alan Douglas served as the producer for two high profile and equally highly dubious 1975 posthumous Hendrix albums: Crash Landing and Midnight Lightning. What proved most controversial was the production strategy, accurately described by one writer as “an ill-conceived attempt to release material that Hendrix had left unfinished” (Shadwick, 183). Evidently, Douglas not only replaced original tracks, but actually erased them (McDermott & Kramer, 312). In addition, parts of Hendrix’s incomplete rhythm tracks were supplemented by a session guitarist. Project engineer, Tony Bongiovi, defensively commented:

We were not trying to infringe upon Jimi’s creativity, just extend it.
All of the important Hendrix solos and personality remained intact
(McDermott & Kramer, 313).

One wonders what could possibly possess a mentally stable producer to permanently consign to oblivion tracks recorded with the greatest guitarist ever, but apparently performance authenticity was not a vital consideration to Douglas at that time. In this process of creating “composite masters from song fragments and demos” (McDermott & Kramer, 312), studio musicians who had never played with Hendrix were utilized, rather than any of his former regular bandmates. The session musicians recorded overdubs including rhythm section parts and backing vocals, while song tempos were also altered (Shadwick, 183-184). Douglas must have had some awareness of the difficulties of the project before he began, yet he contractually committed himself to constructing not one, but three such albums. While subsequent sales indicated that the public’s appetite for Hendrix clearly existed five years after his death, the production compromises were so significant as to constitute corruption of any aesthetics of authenticity. In a 1992 interview, Douglas noted that he had taken Midnight Lightning off the market because, like the other Hendrix albums he reconstructed, it suffered from a lack of creative depth since these recordings were never intended to be heard by the public in any form in the first place (Shadwick 182; McDermott & Kramer, 312). His defence is as follows:

I had no idea I was stepping on someone’s pride. I was just
trying to make a record. I had a problem and I went and fixed
that problem. That was my motivation, to get tracks of Jimi’s
vocal and his lead and rhythm guitar that worked
(McDermott & Kramer, 314).


It’s highly ironic then that a guitarist whose recorded work relied on a potent fusion of technical magic and technological manipulation should have his legacy literally reconstructed and diminished by a misguided application of studio tools and a perverse creative logic.

Bob Marley: Fire in Zion

Catch a Fire, the 1973 Wailers record which intended to introduce reggae to the album-oriented rock audience actually featured so many inauthenticities that in a sense it becomes difficult to view the release as a “real” reggae album. Under Chris Blackwell’s supervision, the original 8-track Jamaican recordings were substantially remixed, overdubbed and edited in London to fit the perceived needs of the target Western audience, thereby “introducing musical statements divorced from its cultural context” (Alleyne, “Positive Vibration?” 95)    .

Specifically, and perhaps most significantly, the album featured a distinctly treble oriented mix, which is fundamentally at odds with the instrumental and aesthetic heart of reggae with its drum and bass lower frequency emphasis from which its essential earthy life-force energy is derived. To reinforce the cultural recontextualization, the speed of tracks was accelerated, Marley’s voice was brought forward in the mix, and guitar and keyboard overdubs were executed by British and American session men who, by their own admission, had either barely or never played reggae before these recordings. Texan keyboardist, John “Rabbit” Bundrick, had worked with Johnny Nash, but Nash’s decidedly polished pop leanings meant that Bundrick was ill-prepared for The Wailers gritty roots articulation. Alabama guitarist, Wayne Perkins speaks of feeling completely unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the music as they were attempting to record his overdubs. Notably, in order to play his parts, he was requested by Chris Blackwell not to listen to the bass which was subsequently lowered in Perkins headphone feed! Blackwell refers to his changes to the song, “Stir It Up”, as designed to “make it much less of the reggae rhythm and more of a drifting feel.” He adds that “This record had the most overdubs on it. This record was the most – I don’t say softened, but more...enhanced to try and reach a rock market because this was the first record and they wanted to reach into that market” (Catch a Fire DVD). The idea of making reggae’s first high-profile fully conceptually integrated album under these circumstances demonstrates that alarming degrees of cultural compromise were central to its construction and representation. Writer and former Island employee, Richard Williams claims that despite the passage of three decades since its release, “the unity and integrity of the music are undiminished either by time or Blackwell’s post-production work...” (Williams 8). I suggest that this cannot be true and requires much more rigorous interrogation.

The 1992 release of the song, “Iron Lion Zion” is conservatively described as being “comprehensively reproduced after Bob’s death” (McCann & Hawke, 113). In effect, the transformation of this song from a sparse, raw roots rendition into a technological extravaganza audibly utilizing tools neither desired by or available to Marley in his lifetime constitutes another kind of death; the demise of temporal and textual authenticity in representing his work.

The purported original version, allegedly recorded in either 1972 or 1973, is included on the 1992 4-CD boxed set, Songs of Freedom and it is fully indicative of the time in which it was made. However, in an effort to boost contemporary interest in Marley, Island Records decided to release a radically transmogrified version featuring an extremely bright mix, digital synthesizer bass, an entirely new digital drum track, new keyboard tracks, and newly recorded backing vocals pushed forward in the mix. In effect, the song is taken completely out of its pre-digital era temporal context solely to serve economic purposes, and is completely antithetical to any idea of sonic and cultural authenticity. We need to remember that when Marley died in 1981, the digital revolution in popular music had not yet occurred, so the idea of using synthesizer bass which he never employed, in a genre which at that time was founded on performed bass lines is truly at odds with reality.


Trevor Horn: Producing Grace Jones and Seal


Although Grace Jones album, Slave to the Rhythm (ZTT, 1985) isn’t supposed to be a focal point in my discussion, its significance in Trevor Horn’s production career and the space devoted to it in print by Timothy Warner suggest it merits a mention here before I discuss Horn’s work with Seal. The entire Slave to the Rhythm project raises several major authorial questions: Who is really the artist/performer here? This appears to be an album made for the artist rather than by the artist, given Grace Jones’ apparently peripheral role in both composition and production involving extensive Synclavier experimentation. There are entire songs featuring ambient digital grooves coupled with narration, virtually if not completely exclusive of Grace Jones’ musical performance participation. Trevor Horn recalled that

The sound of that record was enormously influenced by the
technology.

There’s no doubt that Slave to the Rhythm bears very little
relationship to live performance. It’s completely fabricated –
the whole thing – and that’s what makes it so interesting
(Warner 143).

Horn also noted how the intervention of such technology changed his role, commenting that “The whole game of being a record producer began to shift away from being a sociable boss of a group of musicians having an exciting time making a record to being somebody who visits people programming” (Warner 144). Moreover, it appears that the very process of this work on the Grace Jones record has either reinvented or utterly distorted the idea of record production as we may have viewed it up to that point.  Even the idea that the songs might have been written for or inspired by the artist is inapplicable to the album, since Horn emphasizes that the song “Slave to the Rhythm” was written for Frankie Goes to Hollywood and, in his words,  

It was a ‘bogus’ song. It was written for a purpose and the fact that,
in the end, it was done by somebody like Grace Jones lent it a weight
that in reality it never had. It was written by a couple of professional
songwriters and then forcibly rewritten (Warner 147).


Part of the irony in Horn’s confessional is that even in his inorganic manufacturing of song, sound and identity reputedly representing Grace Jones, in an almost perverted sense he functions as the ultimate producer in the realm of technological reconstruction. But the larger or perhaps more personally precious issue is where the artist lies in all of this. Why is her name on a record on which her personality has greater empirical presence than her performance? Can we authentically say that this is her record? Perhaps only in an entirely postmodern sense can this be considered her work. In addition, the extreme, sonic isolation of portions of the mix, especially when experienced on headphones – produces an acutely disorienting sensation, a complete loss of spatial centrality. This is possibly the aural equivalent of dystopia, reflecting the acutely unequal producer/artist dynamic evident on this record.

Still, let us give Trevor Horn his due. In the appendix of Timothy Warner’s book on his work in the 1980s, Horn makes what is one of the most valuable statements by a producer: “I never much cared for Phil Spector, I always thought he overdid it” (Warner 153).

At the other end of the spectrum of Horn’s work is the production of Seal involving music that both centers on and originates with the artist.  It is also more song centered and less obviously technology oriented, although inevitably the multitracking, overdubbing, the extensive mixing and the multi-studio recordings in England and America create a technological subtext. Perhaps it’s significant that Seal’s stunning 1991 cover of Hendrix’s version of “Hey Joe” was only executive produced by Trevor Horn, since it displays a no-holds barred live-in-the-studio rock infused energy rarely evident on his official album releases. Trevor Horn has created a richly textured, layered sound for Seal over the course of four albums which has been both artistically and commercially effective. As Seal’s unvarnished, invigorating acoustic recordings demonstrate, he has a tremendous gift for delivering songs, but Horn’s augmentations arguably create a wider bridge of accessibility between artist and audience, often amplifying the emotional heart of the work.

However, one slightly perplexing aspect of the Seal sound created by Horn is the pervasive use of (real) strings which seems slightly anachronistic and reminiscent of earlier, more formal phases in the history of record production. While the arrangements are always tasteful, and Horn’s mixes rarely make them too obtrusive, this aspect remains one of the most obvious signs that Seal’s records are in fact “produced”. True, the mixes are in themselves elaborate works of art, but the consistent layering of strings on both the singles and album tracks of a black pop artist from one release to the next is something of an anomaly. The Billboard review of Seal IV describes Horn as someone who “certainly knows his way around postcard-perfect musical landscapes” (Review). However, with strings attached, the music is cumulatively imbued with a sense of grandeur and overt seriousness which occasionally threatens to evaporate the soul of the music. The orchestration seems to self-consciously summon an aura of artistic authenticity which, in this case, is the province of the producer rather than the artist. Seal’s acoustic work provides a clear point of reference between the basic and highly embellished articulations whereby we as listeners can perhaps more objectively determine the extent of Horn’s production, although he has also employed strings on sparse tracks of voice and acoustic guitar (such as “Whirlpool” on Seal’s first album). Clearly, it cannot be suggested that employing strings in the context of black pop is entirely unusual, but perhaps it may be argued that the ways in which they are used on Seal’s records does not fully integrate them into the artist’s identity, while paradoxically enhancing the record’s identity and integrating Seal into pop-friendly radio playlists around the world.

    There are too many examples of Horn’s use of strings with Seal to discuss them in detail, but the contrast between what some might see as the pomposity of orchestral arrangement versus the implied authenticity of acoustic guitar accompanied performance is evident in versions of the song, “Deep Water”.  The song is included on his first album in 1991 with orchestral trimmings, but the acoustic version released as an extra track on the single, “The Beginning”, reveals more organic performance possibilities.


FADE TO BLACK


As a closing point on this issue of authenticity, I have mainly addressed the concept primarily as a one-way cultural street. I want to very briefly consider an especially peculiar case involving music originally recorded by an English rock band, covered by a multiracial New York group in a non-rock genre. The Easy Star All Stars Dub Side of the Moon (2003), a mainly reggae reinterpretation of Pink Floyd’s 1973 rock album classic, Dark Side of the Moon, demonstrates that there is some cultural intertextuality surrounding authenticity discourse.  The encompassing spatiality of dub provides common sonic ground (or perhaps rather, air) within which two otherwise disparate musical worlds can comfortably interface without unduly compromising either genre.

    In this assessment of production and culture, and indeed the cultures of production, we witness the intersection of creativity, commercialization, contradiction and artistic experimentation at an axis of conflict. No matter how objectively we attempt to allow the musical colours to transcend the material boundaries constricting their creation, a more fundamental colour consciousness is always, at the very least, on the periphery of our perception, influencing our reception, whether as artist producer or audience. The producers I’ve examined have all dared to challenge the fixity and essentialism of their profession, with varying degrees of success, while implicitly attempting to do the same for their artists. However, while creative risk-taking must be encouraged, some of the cited examples should clearly indicate that the road to digital or analog hell is paved with good intentions.



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