Friday, January 23, 2009

Electra Feels Good To Peaches Thinkin' Triple X: Women In Electro Music

Besides blogging, one of my larger passions is deejaying. I've been deejaying since 1985, me and my now brother-in-law David started learning together in Jamaica, which became the foundation of Ambassador Soundsystem. And in case you didn't know this about Jamaicans... we LOVED to boogie! And when i say boogie, i mean we were poppin and lockin and breakin, had battle crews and taggers and the whole nine. Shoo, a yardie named Kool Herc started this whole hip hop game, let us not forget! Nuff respek...

Speaking of forgetting... i have been haunted by an obscure song for decades. I would sing what i could remember to other deejays, and a faint light might sparkle in their eye, but no one could tell me what this song was. My most vivid memory of this song was either the 1982 or 1983 Campion High School Barbecue in Kingston (high school barbecues were a big big ting back then!!) and a popping and locking electric boogie duo performed on stage to this song. It was an amazing performance, i remember them creating invisible obstacles for them to pop lock and shiver through. My own "boogie tag" was "Shiver" for a minute cause i used to pass the wave with visibly vibrating limbs. I think i still can too... aw yeah! :)

I finally found the elusive song accidentally on an old school house and electro compilation online just a couple weeks ago (its called Chicago Boogie - its dope!!), and there it was, Electra "Feels Good" (1982). I immediately wrote my bredda-in-law and other members of Ambassadors, i had finally found this song that had stumped us! And i have to say, i love YouTube, they have more old school gems up there than mp3 sites! (full song above). I was also inspired to blog about this through stumbling onto the Cocoa Luv Chronicles blog... she is also a dj, and puts up clips of old school jams.

Listening to the Electra song, I was transported back to pre-teen memories, and i just love it! However, I was also amused at how dated the lyrical content seemed. Electra is singing about doing all these exercise routines, but not for herself. She makes it crystal clear that she is only doing this to please her lover. Although she never says her lover is male, its till sounds loaded when she sings "all for you! just you! bending and stretching for you, just you." I guess at least she says all the the working out "feels good" to her. But it made me think about the evolution of women in electro music, and how there seemed to be a trajectory of lyrics moving from a more self-sacrificing womanhood to a more aggressive and assertive expression of femininity.

To be clear, I am not referring to electronic music in totality, just the sub-genre of electro music, which is typified by the synth drum sounds of the Roland TR-808 module that came out in 1980. The sounds on this drum machine are distinct, especially in the way they do not sound like real drums. The TR-808 also influenced techno along with the TR-909. Early electro had its foundations in the sounds of Kraftwerk, Afrika Bambatta's "Planet Rock", and Classic pre-Detroit Techno tracks like Cybotron's "Clear". The minimal synthetic electronic sound evoked the robotic emulations that electric boogie and popping and locking were.

In terms of electronic music, women like Wendy Carlos and Laurie Anderson have long been pushing the experimental electronic envelope, and the Bay Area's own Miya Masaoka has been rockin the laser koto for decades, in tandem with performance art works involving insects, the body, and commentary on race and gender. In terms of women and electro, the earliest my own dj library and research can come up with is Electra's "Feels Good" and Berlin's "The Metro" (awesome song! somewhat tortured video, themes around finally leaving a problematic relationship... whew! peep the link). From there, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam did their electro meets freestyle thing with hits like "I Wonder If I Take You Home." (1984), (wow... i'm sorry, i forgot how fine Lisa Lisa was. She was foine! Heh. You gotta peep the hairstyles in this video too!) Here, Lisa Lisa sings openly about her sexuality ("because i need you tonight") while questioning if the dude will stick around afterwards. We are moving away from more tortured relationship dynamics slowly :) JJ Fad brought it back to the Afrika Bambatta hip hop/electro roots with "Supersonic" (1988) . They are having a blast! And this is pure, feel good, shining female hip hop bravado. They are Supersonic, what more do you need? At this point, the whole Miami Bass phenomenon definitely took the electro thang and ran with it. You can still hear electro influence in South Side Hip Hop. Electro-funk took off much earlier in 1980 with acts like Zapp & Roger, and Midnight Star (Freak-A-Zoid! live!) who took the vocoder elements of Kraftwerk and fused it with raw funk, programmed beats and bubbling synth basslines. No one would guess how abused the vocoder would become through the 2000's in contemporary hip hop and r&b. Please issue cease and desist orders to T-Pain and Kanye West.

Back to the the Clan Of Electra... Mad props gotta go to Missy Elliot too! When she dropped "Lose Control", she brought it full circle back to original electro, by revamping Cybotron's "Clear." And no doubt, Missy ain't got time to worry about half-steppin knucklehead lovers, she is "clear"ly too busy being awesome. Get your back off the wall. Miss Demeanor said so.

Missy Elliot "Lose Control"

Finally, the new school queens of Electro (or electroclash, which has more roots in the fusion of new wave and electro- like Berlin "The Metro") are acts like Ladytron and Peaches. And whoooo.... Peaches? Here, fierce and assertive womanhood is unapologetic and on your face. No that's not a typo :) I think this a good place to complete the timeline of women in electro, and the widening continuum of expression of female power that was portrayed. There are more videos on Peaches' website, but i just have to embed the YouTube fake video of "AA XXX" just cuz its one of my fave Peaches songs. (below. mp3 listen link for AA XXX here.)

I await commentary and theorizing around what the cybernetic combination of warmblooded women and cold bleeping machinery can mean or symbolize. Cylons!! (tip of the hat to BSG fans :)

Peaches "Double A Triple X" (strong language may not be appropriate for minors)

ps: wanna dig deeper? are you like... what is the difference between electro, techno and house? peep the helpful, interactive, irreverent and mostly accurate Ishkur's Guide To Electronic Music.


Bushra said...

Richard, wanted to write to you, just read your writing on the oscar grant protest, so thank you cause I'm here in ny but had the consciousness of oakland and wanted to know what was really happening, so thanks, also I've been listening to Missy's Cookbook non-stop to help me through this transition to nyc and so I thought it was funny that you gave her special props. and finally have you heard this?
malcolm, baldwin and McCummings discussing forms of protest among many many things. feel free to post it.

richard said...

thank you Bushra! i really appreciate that. i'm glad to know that my reportback provided what you were looking for. i have really good feelings about that post, and have gotten alot of positive feedback. i almost didn't post it cuz its not necessarily a subject of feminist issue (perhaps i could have looked at it through the lens of masculinity, power, race...), but was encouraged to do so-- and my blog hits went from like 20-30 a day to 500 (!!) i know at least one teacher that is going to use it in his class, and many sites have to refrred to this post as a primary news source. so i am glad that it had this level of impact, and that i even posted it!

funny that you are listening to Missy right now! i love her :) i'm waiting for Missy, MIA and Santogold to collaborate :)

will peep that kpfa link! thanks for the heads up, that sounds fascinating. stay warm over there, good to hear from you! Happy Lunar New Year, bless up!