Chipmunk Soul: A Requiem

 

Kanye West, The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2004)

I spent the early months of 2004 taking an Introduction to Film course in Summer School and working the evening shift at a petrol station. My employer, BP Jervois, sat between a picture framers and a motel on a wide boulevard lined with cafés and boutiques. This thoroughfare borders Herne Bay, that creamy slice of central Auckland (named during the nineteenth century after a modest seaside resort in Kent), perched on the south-western slopes of the Waitemata Harbour.

My uniform consisted of teal slacks with permanent creases, a short-sleeved twill shirt in camel, and on the rare occasion it was cold enough, a scratchy green sweater. The work was dull and slightly dirty, lacking the camaraderie and visceral satisfactions of manual labour, but also the physical ravages. Nonetheless, there were some distinct occupational hazards. Constant exposure to oil and gas would make the pads of my fingers peel and petrochemical vapours soaked into my clothes and hair. Even freshly showered, I couldn’t quite shake the smell of Unleaded 91.

Our station’s proximity to the Harbour Bridge on-ramp ensured its small four-pump forecourt was jammed with irritable commuters every morning and late-afternoon. The first few hours following my arrival at 3.00 would rush by in a montage of nozzles clicking on and off, backhands drawing across sudsy windows, rows of numerals racing higher and higher on greasy console displays. From around 6.00 until the end-of-shift at 10:30, however, it often fell eerily quiet. Some weeknights the area had an air of desertion. The hands of the Sachin Tendulkar picture-clock on the store’s ceiling beam seemed to move agonisingly slowly.

To put it mildly, there wasn’t much to do on these evenings, save the approved tasks of restocking the drinks fridge; cleaning the perpetually dusty shelves and filmy floor and emptying the forecourt bins. Then there was the illicit (and more frequently exercised) option of perusing the magazine rack. Having no interest in cars, fishing, hunting, rugby or overt lechery, the men’s titles were mostly impenetrable. Thankfully, we stocked a respectable selection of gossip weeklies, then in their paparazzi-fomenting heyday. That summer I received a first-class education on the nuances of Jen and Brad’s relationship and the earliest partying of the plump, fresh-faced Lindsay Lohan.

An off-brand boom-box behind the till provided a soundtrack to this reading. It remained on constantly, tuned either to ‘urban’ radio or low-volume Hindi slow-jams. The latter was the choice of a large contingent of my co-workers, recent immigrants from the Indian sub-continent in their thirties and forties. These men were enduring several years of minimum wage purgatory while retraining or saving to open businesses of their own. They were hard-working and glad to be in New Zealand, despite the obvious challenges of establishing themselves in a society largely indifferent to the qualifications and experience many had brought with them. Being young and lazy, I admired this work-ethic in the abstract, but sometimes  found their rigidity a bit of a drag. It was more fun to be on shift with a cohort of younger, kiwi-born Fijian Indians, who didn’t deign to do much cleaning and didn’t order me to. We instead spent most of the evening downtime horsing around and listening to hip-hop.

A few distinct sounds dominated the airwaves that summer,  but the one I remember best is the micro-trend dubbed ‘Chipmunk Soul’. This term is a fairly accurate sonic description of a style of hip hop production that began colonising the airwaves and certain albums in the early 2000s. It represented the first significant departure in a long while from the two poles of mainstream American rap: the James Brown/Parliament-Funkadelic-influenced ‘Boom Bap’, popularised in the 1990s by DJ Premier, Pete Rock and other East Coast producers and ‘G-Funk’, the brand of laid-back sleaze indelibly associated with California’s Dr Dre and DJ Quick. For much of the previous decade, the sound-beds these producers had assembled typically featured some combination of hard-funk keyboard loops, slinky synthesisers, stabs of sampled horns, scratches, vocal snippets from movies or other rap songs, thumping bass, and heavy drums programmed to a crisp but rhythmic 80-to-100 beats per-minute.

By contrast, the new sound being pioneered by a slightly younger generation of producers (in particular Just Blaze and Kayne West, the in-house beat-makers for Jay-Z and Dame Dash’s Roc-A-Fella Records) was predicated on sampling vocal snatches from vinyl records. The songs West and his peers  were grabbing parts from weren’t just any old records either, but they included some of the most gorgeous, transcendent moments in the history of soul, smooth jazz and r&b: famous ad-libs by Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandros over swelling strings, Mavis Staples and Patty La belle pleading with their capricious lovers to stay or coolly asserting their independence.

Not all the samples of the era were so obvious: lesser-known but successful producers like Nottz and The 45 King favoured show-tunes as much as soul, while the late- Detroit-based maestro J Dilla specialised in constructing floating, ethereal soundscapes from barrages of obscure loops, each often lasting only a second or two. In most of what made it to the radio, however, the cuts were big and unsubtle, threading through the new songs’ skeletal beats as insistent refrains, often inspiring the narrative conceit  of the tracks themselves or being referenced by the rapper in a kind of call and response. The major gimmick and defining characteristic of this process was that these samples had been sped and pitched-up, usually by the crude technique of playing a 12-inch record on the 45 revolutions per-minute-setting designed for 7-inch singles. This treatment rendered samples that might otherwise have been cliched  exotic and fresh, like they were being sung by underwater or by soulful wood sprites.

Almost as soon as it had reached the point of  ubiquity, chipmunk soul seemed to enter a steep decline. Within a year or two, many of its exponents had moved on to more sonically ambitious production, often using live instrumentation. Its early champion West had unequivocally shed his initial identity as a goofy, under-appreciated producer for Jay-Z to become a major artist in his own right, although he was already showing signs of the grandiosity that would come to consume him. Tellingly, Jay Z’s own epic retirement fake-out record the Black Album (2004), featured several classic productions by Just Blaze, all of which were already eschewing the chipmunk effect for a fuller, more complex soul and rock-derived sound.

In retrospect, it is clear that the brief zenith of chipmunk soul was really the death rattle of the ‘classic’ rap paradigm of the 1990s. By the early 2000s, the urban musical landscape had already begun to shift under the feet of those who had made their reputations (and fortunes) in the previous decade, as rap completed its transition from urban curiosity to corporate-linked behemoth. The funk-soul-blues nexus of the polyglot cities of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles—music that had harked back, in its sonic templates, if not hardboiled attitude, to the ‘golden era’ of African-American pop and soul which followed the Great Migration of southerners to northern cities in the mid-to-late 20th century—was shedding cultural relevance. It was being replaced  by the emerging style and sound of Atlanta, the predominantly suburban, predominantly black metropolis of the ‘New South’, populated by refugees from the rapidly de-industrialising great cities of the East Coast and Midwest. Where late-period ‘Boom Bap’ and ‘Chipmunk Soul’ had been lush, the new southern sound was minimalist, almost icy, in the precision of its operatic synths and 808 drums. I didn’t like it as much. Nor, more than a decade later, would I respond to  ‘Drill’, the nihilistic soundtrack to urban violence that saw Chicago return briefly to the centre of the rap universe for all the wrong reasons. But those are stories for another day.

RIP chimunk soul 2002-2004.

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