May 6, 2008
Bitch Ass Darius "Follow The Sound" Mixtape

This is the fourth in a series of "intimate critiques" produced by masters students in my Media Theory and Methods proseminar that I've been running over on my blog. Since Kevin will be speaking as part of a Consortium-organized colloquium event on Thursday regarding his work on video sharing sites, I thought it would be a great idea to share his post with C3 blog readers as well.

Here, Kevin walks us through the process by which he learned to hear and appreciate a mix tape which initially challenged him both formally and ideologically. In the process, as a young white male, he confronts some explicit lyrics which force him to re-examine some of his assumptions about race, class and sexuality. This essay may take some readers out of their comfort zone -- and that's part of its point, since he is trying to explain how we renegotiate our senses of ourselves when we encounter forms of expression which do not fit our norms or pre-established tastes.

Bitch Ass Darius "Follow The Sound" Mixtape
by Kevin Driscoll

The CD itself is rather unassuming. Sleeveless, its face bears a name and phone number handwritten in Sharpie. Flip the disc over and you might suspect it is blank. The area pock-marked with data stretches from the center hole to just before the outermost edge. Drop it into a CD player and you'll discover that there are eighty tracks, few of which extend beyond sixty seconds.

I met Joe Beuckman in the summer of 2003 when we performed together in a small artspace located inside one of dozens of post-industrial hulks scattered around Allentown, PA. He gave a demonstration about reverse engineering Nintendo cartridges, showed off a vinyl record used to store executable computer instructions, and then scratched that record over Three 6 Mafia's "Sippin' on Some Syrup" while shouting, "I'm scratching data right now!" I introduced myself after the show and he gave me CD-Rs containing the latest mixtapes from two of his DJ alter-egos: Kenny Kingston and Bitch Ass Darius. Kenny Kingston is a lover of early-90s dance music: house, hip-hop, r'n'b, and new jack swing. Bitch Ass Darius plays a mixture of Miami bass, acid house, and pitched-up Detroit techno known occasionally as "ghettotech" or "booty bass." While I found familiarity, comfort, and nostalgia in Kingston's pop-heavy mix, everything about Darius' mix, from the super-fast tempo to the puerile lyrics, felt alien and alienating.

Despite (or perhaps because of) my utter inability to relate, I did not discard Follow The Sound but continued to return to it. As I grew more affectionate of the recording, I became more literate in its governing logics. This change happened with the same slow haze that enshrouds the acquisition of any new language. Meaning and distinction emerge from the undifferentiated whole as the gradual process of Platonic recollection plays out. Details pop into relief along the surface of the text that can be used to uncover further information. A snippet of one lyric is found repeated in the title of song on another mixtape. In time, I began to construct a likely tracklisting, to understand the recording and performance technique, to relate with the lyrics, and to imagine and embody the physical movement booty music is designed to accompany and control.

This passage from confusion and alienation to conversant literacy and familiarity necessarily involved a confrontation with the uncommon lyrical content of most booty music. In 2003, I (somewhat naively) considered myself anti-racist, a feminist, and self-reflective about my own privileged social status. Gripped by a fear of repeating patterns of domination, I avoided all but the most clearly "safe" heterosexual scenarios. As such, most of my intimate encounters took on a tone of conservative sexual diplomacy and made no room for the absurd, titillating application of domination at play in lyrics like "girl, let me nut on your face / and let me know how good it tastes." By struggling to understand this strange music, I was forced to put my own sexual practices in question.

Constructed in the tradition of non-stop DJ mixtapes found in hip-hop, dancehall reggae, house, and techno, Follow The Sound differs significantly from the compilations traded among fans of other musical genres. The mixtapes discussed in this essay are collections of sound recordings gathered from different sources and collaged by an individual DJ using tools for sound manipulation, playback, and recording. While a personal computer can perform all of these tasks, it is common for mixtape DJs to deploy some combination of analog and digital technologies in their production process. Turntables, CD players, analog mixers, samplers, microphones, and tape machines sit alongside personal computers in the mixtape studio.

Listeners construct an image of a traditional recording artist by reading the voices, instrumental performances, and deployment of studio technology on a track. It is not possible to locate the mixtape DJ using these signs, however, as few of the tracks feature newly recorded vocal or instrumental performances. Rather, the DJ reveals or obscures her position in the text through strategic sonic interventions, specifically, the selection, sequencing, remixing, and blending of existing tracks, the inclusion of voice-over and/or sound effects, and the improvised (often atypical) application of studio technologies. Though only a handful of the eighty tracks on Follow The Sound feature original production by Bitch Ass Darius, the DJ is nonetheless embodied in the recombinant whole. Using three turntables connected to a mixer, Darius is able to synchronize and layer multiple existing recordings to create a new continuous piece of music. In addition, rather than smoothly blend one track into the next, he calls attention to the seams between various recordings through deployment of conventional DJ transitions: scratching percussive snippets of an incoming track, suddenly turning off the motor of a spinning platter, or manually rewinding an outgoing track while slowly reducing its volume to create an ascending "zip-zip-zip" effect.

Drawn from over two decades of electronic dance music, many of the tracks on Follow The Sound share certain formal characteristics that unify the mix and enable imperceptible transitions between existing recordings from different sources. Most of the tracks are in 4/4 time and feature a handclap, snap, or snare drum on beats 2 and 4. They are also synchronized to approximately 150 beats per minute and usually aligned such that the first beat of an incoming track matches the downbeat of the track (or tracks) currently playing. To achieve this synchronization, Bitch Ass Darius uses turntables with variable speed motors to adjust tempo. The use of similar synthesizers, drum machines, and samples among dance music producers further facilitates this process of layering, stacking, and blending tracks.

Not all of the songs on Follow The Sound were unfamiliar on my first listen. Track 24 features Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" played atop a sparse acid house track built of a hi-hat, clap, and a synthesized bass line. To match the relatively slow original Jackson recording with the fast tempo established earlier in the mix, the vinyl record designed to be played at 33rpm is "pitched up" by setting the turntable to spin at 45rpm. Although this technique yields the desired tempo, it substantially distorts the pop recording, producing a "chipmunk" vocal effect. Isolated from the rest of Follow The Sound, this disruption would sound uncomfortable to listeners familiar with the original version. In the context of the mix however, this alteration is coherent and consistent with an established logic.

An important distinction between Beuckman's Kingston mix and his Darius mix is the nature of the source materials. In the case of Kenny Kingston, many of the original recordings are songs that follow a traditional pop structure. Their composers anticipate that the recordings will be heard from beginning to end as they would on typical pop radio programming. The tracks on Follow The Sound, however, are primarily composed with a DJ in mind. They often feature long repetitious passages to facilitate blending and synchronization. This shift in imagined audience on the part of the tracks' composers indicates an important distinction between the dance music following in the disco tradition and the rest of Western popular music.

To understand Follow The Sound, I needed to learn how the logics of disco-derived dance musics contrast with the rest of pop music. The clearest distinction is in the division of labor between the producers of recordings and the DJs who present those recordings to the public. In some dance musics, the marketplace mirrors this separation. Vinyl singles are printed in limited qualities and marketed to DJs who then play the tracks in clubs, on the radio, and on mixtapes for the general audience.[1] Whereas the value system at play in many traditional genres of pop music demand that the application of sound recording apparatus be limited to the creation of accurate representations of historical events [2], dance musics necessarily distinguish a musical recording from a musical performance and treat the construction and assembly of an audio recording as a creative end in itself.

Beyond the technical concerns of the recording studio, dance music producers must imagine the audiences and contexts for whom and within which their recordings will be played. While it is not uncommon to hear dance music used as retail ambiance, employed in scoring films, or playing out of car stereos, headphones, and radios, this essay concerns those recordings constructed specifically to be played on a sound system to a group of people in an environment that permits and encourages dancing. To engage with the bodies of an unseen audience is at once a mysterious and an intimate act requiring producers transcend the contrast between a typical music studio and nightclub dancefloor.

I have twice referred to disco as the antecedent for the music found on Follow The Sound. I make this connection because disco's core innovations have been carried through several generations of dance music to find themselves echoed in the essential framework of booty bass. In the 1970s, disco producers brought a straightforward drum pattern to the front of the mix by simplifying some of the swing and syncopation of funk, soul, and r'n'b. (The Black and gay roots of disco complicate the arguments of critics who suggest this "simplifying" was also a "whitening".) Typically organized in 4/4 time, disco established the dominance of "four on the floor" drum patterns in which the bass drum is struck on all four downbeats while the snare is played on the second and fourth. Disco singles were also the first records to be pressed onto 12" vinyl, a size typically reserved for full-length albums. This permitted the production of much longer versions of songs and lead the way for the lengthened intro, break, and outro passages in which a song is stripped down to its barest parts. With the availability of these records and their shared "four on the floor" drum pattern, nightclub DJs soon developed an overlapping style of mixing records that maintained a steady rhythm throughout the evening. Thus opened a transit of inspiration, need, innovation, and fulfillment among the producers of musical recordings, DJs, and dancers.

To attend to the needs of a live mixing DJ and a dancing audience, disco records vary little in their core rhythmic pattern and tempo. In the 1980s, disco was superseded by house, techno, and bass music in the U.S. and the distinctions between dance music and traditional popular music genres became more clear. Producers of dance music, aware of the DJs future interposition, tend to delay (or altogether deny) the visibility of a central melodic figure in their compositions, upsetting one of pop music's cornerstones: the hook. Pop's verse / chorus structure also gives way to highly repetitive compositions that gradually vary in timbre and instrumentation over the course of a track with no identifiable resolution.

These changing production concerns reflect changing expectations and demands on the part of dancing audiences. Whether at a nightclub, a hall, a bar, a gymnasium, or a living room, the dancefloor is a social space that encourages an emphasis on embodiment. Drowned out by loud music, verbal communication gives way on the dancefloor, and the dancer's public performance of identity is centered on the movement of his body. By joining the dancefloor, the dancer has entered into a new trusted relationship with the DJ and the music being played. If the sequence of songs progresses in a sufficiently familiar fashion, he will be able to establish a comfortable sense of himself and his place within the dancing crowd. With subtle shifts, raised tempos, or tonal transitions between each track, the DJ can thus carry this dancer from a familiar sonic space to a fairly alien one without damaging his sense of trust and comfort by causing him to falter or feel otherwise embarrassed.

Tempo and timbre can be shifted subtly on the dancefloor without disrupting the dancer's experience of self. The introduction of lyrics, however, requires its own consideration. In a loud nightclub, lyrics, whether in a familiar language or otherwise, necessarily introduce a power imbalance. Dancers have no voice and are thus spoken for by the voices in the recordings selected by the DJ.

Since disco distinguished club music from pop, dance musics have struggled with their relationships to lyrics. One role of lyrics in dance music can be to affirm, motivate, and direct dancers. The most didactic example of this type being the square dance caller. Various subgenres and producers take different approaches to the deployment of voice and verbal signs. Some focus on vaguely affirmative lyrics about dancing and partying ("Move your body!"), or positive messages ("I'm feeling so free!"), some opt for looping familiar phrases sampled from rap acapellas or film soundtracks, while others still forgo lyrics altogether to produce strictly instrumental music.[3]

Taking its cue from the sex rap found in Miami Bass, booty bass lyrics represent a sophomoric approach to sexuality. They typically feature snippets of schoolyard sex talk repeated ad naseum such as:

"Hit it from the back / Let me bang / Hit it from the back / Let me bang / Hit it from the back / ... " (etc., etc.)

During my first listen to Follow The Sound, I recall laughing out of discomfort and surprise at lyrics like, "Big booty bitches / They talk a lot of smack / Bring your ass here / And ride on this dick". I tried to mitigate this discomfort by exoticizing the lyrics and acting as though they were of an alien culture I could no more understand than judge. Yet as I was drawn deeper into the music, through repeated listens and exposure to other DJs, artists, and - most importantly - dancefloors, I had to challenge this uncritical approach.

By reading the lyrics literally, I was ignoring their role inside the logic of dance music. If the dancefloor is a place where it is safe to move one's body in unusual ways, perhaps it is also a space where the embodiment of the sex act can be exposed, toyed with, and manipulated. Like sampled drum hits and sped-up Michael Jackson songs, the coherency of booty bass lyrics is threatened by decontextualization.

The boundaries are flimsy between the technical and social structures of booty music. For example, the practice of "pitching up" records complicates typical gender performance and sexuality among vocalists. The following lyric is sung in a gender-ambiguous high-pitched voice to a feminized "girl":

"Every freaking day / Every freaking night / I wanna freak you girl / Your body is so freaking tight"

Often, the mention of particular sexual organs or gendered slang is the only way to visualize an orator. In several tracks, a call-and-response takes place between supposed male and female voices. For example, on track 19, we hear the following exchange:

F: Nigga what's your cheddar like?

M: Bitch, you know my cheddar tight.

F: Nigga, what's your ride like?

M: Bitch, you know my ride tight.

F: Nigga, what's your tongue like?

M: Bitch, you know my tongue tight.

F: Nigga, what's your dick like?

M: Bitch, you know my dick tight.

This preposterous conversation overgrounds the most subterranean inner-dialogue of the sexually-charged dancefloor. It amplifies the basest voice of the dancefloor id. The joy I find in booty bass is not simply the naughty thrill at hearing sex chat but is in the liberating potential of a construction of sonic space in which sexual desire, fetish, and perversion are no longer taboo.

The experience of dancing to these tracks in trusted spaces challenged my assumptions about sex and power. By treating sex like a courtroom proceeding and trying to remove all hierarchies from the physical interplay, I was actually maintaining my hegemonic power over the relationship. If there is no space to be be a "freak", to say and do freaky things, then the "safety" I sought has not actually been established. The absurd lyrics by DJ Nasty, DJ Funk, and DJ Assault all revel in these moments of "freakiness" where people willingly submit to themselves and their partners. By exploring these themes and ideas through movement on the dancefloor, I learned to complicate my own understanding of sex and sexual desire.[4]


[1] This model is quickly collapsing as the reduced costs of online distribution and digital DJ tools remove the need for pressing vinyl records.

[2] Consider on-going controversy surrounding authenticity and the use of pitch-correction software in country music. In 2003, singer Allison Moorer put stickers on her CDs that read, "Absolutely no vocal tuning or pitch-correction was used in the making of this record." ( ) Notably and consistent with a history of creative appropriation, hip-hop producers have recently begun to deploy the maligned "auto-tune" software in unexpected ways.

[3] Although it is beyond the scope of this essay, it is interesting to consider the role of language in the global movement of dance musics. How do verbal samples function differently as they move among communities and changed territories? There is considerable opportunity for an investigation of the materiality of voice, exoticism, and globalization in the ways that various dance musics carry with them vocalizations in Brazilian Portuguese, Puerto Rican Spanish, Jamaican Patois and countless other languages, slanguages, and dialects.

[4] This discussion of Bitch Ass Darius is a first attempt at discussing the thorny topic of sexually and racially charged lyrical content. As such, it fails to address some very important issues that were no doubt raised in the minds of its readers. Chief among them are the racial dynamics at play in the popularity of booty bass and my own use of a racially unfamiliar, geographically remote culture to explore my own (heterosexual, White) discomfort. The vast majority of booty bass is produced by African-Americans living in Chicago and Detroit. The use of African-American music to explore sex and embodiment by White audiences is a well-documented and a recurring pattern of appropriation that debases and essentializes Black Americans. In addition, the "safety" of the dancefloor I describe above is highly variable. In the same group of people, conditions that feel "safe" to one participant can very reasonably be threatening to another.

Kevin Driscoll earned his BA in Visual Art from Assumption College in 2002. He joins CMS after three years teaching Computer Science at Prospect Hill Academy Charter School in Cambridge, MA. There he explored issues of identity management, media production, literacy, hacking, and hip-hop with the consistently brilliant students in grades 6-12. Inspired by a challenging first year in the classroom, Kevin co-founded a non-profit organization called TeachForward (later re-named Developing Curriculum, Inc.) to encourage the sharing and development of high-quality, free learning materials on the web. In addition to his work in education. Kevin is a frequent collaborator with internet-based artist Claire Chanel and a hip-hop dj responsible for Gold Chain and Todo Mundo events. Check out his blog at