The Night Pinchbeck Met Diplo in My Head

9/20/07

I have not been writing about a lot of things that have been happening lately. I’ve started many posts, but have lost interest in completing them. I have not even written about our parties in a while, including one-of-a-kind shows with special guests like Joro-Boro and Sujinho. What gets me to write? Reviewing the Diplo show at Holocene that happened September 19th, 2007 along with commenting on the Daniel Pinchbeck appearance at Powell’s that I attended the same evening. I did such a thorough job of dissecting Diplo’s set at the Doug Fir that occurred on August 7th, 2006 that I felt I had to practice a similar exercise this time around, testing if I lost some of my ability to be able to hold that much of a DJ set in my head without notes for a second time. I force Daniel Pinchbeck and Diplo to share a blog post since they both shared my nervous system on the evening of September 19th. I am often entertained moving from one very different event to another in an evening, and sensing that I am the only person in Portland engaging in a particular succession of events on a particular evening. Did you go to Pinchbeck and Diplo on the same night? My cursory visual scan registered totally different crowds at the two events. On the night in quesion I wondered if Diplo’s performance would gain any added significance or meaning to me as a result of hearing Pinchbeck’s encouragement to search for meaning in the synchronicities and juxtapositions of life. I now wonder if I will achieve any additional insight from further forcing the juxtaposition of the two events by writing about them both in the same post.

The Diplo show at the Doug Fir in August of 2006 was the first time I had seen him; every previous time he played Portland I either had a gig or was out of town. Ever since reading about his Hollertronix parties and buying the Favela on Blast mixtape (as much as I loved MIA from her first 12″s, I never got that into Piracy Funds Terrorism) I had wanted to see him DJ. What I find so notable about Diplo as media creation is that he is the US DJ most associated with playing international urban music, although I question how much that reputation is justified by the actual musical content of his DJ sets. Since he seemed to know a fair amount about both Funk Carioca and grime from what I read in various media, I hoped for all sorts of international excitement whenever I might get the chance to see him. When I asked people about the Portland Diplo shows that I missed, curious about his international selections, I was told, much to my disappointment, that he only played hip-hop and ’80s. When I finally saw him at Doug Fir he waited until the end of his set to play the Funk Carioca rhythm sampled in “Bucky Done Gun,” and then “Bucky Done Gone,” and that was it for Funk Carioca in his entire set. He did drop the “Rompe” accappella, (but no real reggaeton beats) and a few dancehall songs near the beginning, but overwhelmingly his set was electronic, hip-hop, and whitey 80’s and indie; not international music. Which is fine, he does his thing, people love it, dance, go crazy, but it bugs me that he has the reputation of being THE white dude American DJ who has the international urban scene on lock – if he is playing primarily anything but.

I think he totally deserves credit as a DJ and producer who puts forth highly danceable and eclectic sounds, and for bringing attenton to the Funk scene in Rio, I just take offense to people claiming that any DJ doing an international urban mix is some copycat of his – which is an idea I encounter online occasionally. There are a lot of DJs in the US actually playing entire sets of international dance music, not getting any sort of national notice or interest. They might not be raising the media profile in America of international dance music the way Diplo is, but they are actually playing the international music that Diplo just gets credited for playing. As much as Diplo’s media coverage has often focused on his pursuit of hot-shit international urban dance music, I have not found much evidence of this pursuit in the sets of his that I have witnessed. He might collect the music and listen to it, and know a lot more about it than I do, I just wish I could hear more of it in his sets when he plays Portland.

Last night, before I went to the Diplo show, I attended Daniel Pinchbeck’s “reading” at Powell’s, and although billed as a reading, he didn’t read anything, but instead talked about how his life led him to Powell’s to talk to us. Fine by me, when it comes to authors of non-fiction, there are only certain bookstore appearances that really benefit from an actual reading of the text. Unless the person is a powerful reader, and their material is really geared to being heard, and not just read, then I often find the expectation that all authors read at their appearance an ossified practice that clings on to non-fiction book tours; an awkward and unfortunate ritual hearkening back to when words were spoken and not read. A great thing to witness if someone is an orator, but not many writers are necessarily good orators, so I would rather them just talk about their book and their ideas, rather than reading from the text. I can do that just fine on my own, on my own time.

Pinchbeck’s appearance didn’t seem ossified, as he riffed on his ongoing life journey, 2012, shamanic cultures, traditional psychedelic ceremonies, secular materialism, the wisdom age, crop circles, “communing with plant teachers” (How much did he use that phrase in jest? There was much audience laughter that appeared to be knowingly caused.), the power of intention, freeing the power of the psyche, the coming together of science and indigenous/intuitive knowing, the plumed serpent, the death of the biosphere, the emergence of the technosphere, possible futures for humanity/the earth, Hopi and Mayan concepts of time, Rudolph Steiner, Nietzsche, John Major Jenkins, Jose Arguelles, Carl Johan Calleman, Terrance McKenna, the interrelatedness of the planet, the relation between thought/the psyche and material reality, etc., etc., and etc. I liked that he was not “certain” of things, but pursued things with a questioning -what are the most creative possibilites of looking at this situation - form of thinking and learning. He feels we have a window of time currently, where we can either radically transfrom our lives and our relationship to the planet, or continue down a path of self-destruction, and we need to consider which path our own thoughts and lives are directed towards. Ever since reading about Breaking Open the Head in Arthur I’ve been curious about the man, although I have only glanced at his books, considering the idea of eventually reading them.

A lot of authors/speakers alienate me at their appearances because of how they handle the question and answer period. KRS-One appeared like an absolute certain-of-his-own-infallable-genius full-of-un-thought-out-contradictions/convictions idiot as he attempted to deal with audience questions when I saw him in 1990. Chomsky blew it for me, yelling at someone that had a different opinion than him. Chomsky testily claimed that the data that he had seen about an event trumped the audience member’s personal lived experience of that event. Of all people, Oliver Stone impressed me the most with his approach to his audience, which I witnessed when I worked at his Portland book tour appearance in the late ’90s. He listened intently to every audience member question and really tried to answer all of them as if it mattered, with thought, honesty, humor, and thoroughness; not ignoring, redirecting, misunderstanding, or evading the varied questions. Pinchbeck announced before his “reading” even really began that he would only allow “questions” and not rants, psychedelic blow-by-blows (those were his territory), or anything that wasn’t specifically aimed at asking him for something; he was the one that was going to be doing the talking. While I can imagine the type of ravings that he was trying to avoid, he twice cut off audience members who had somewhat long, but related riffs that they wanted to add to the the thought stew; a very egoistic effort on his part that bothered me, given that we were all there to learn, and he wasn’t otherwise trying to be some I-know-it-all-guru-prophet in his presentation. Internet carpings I had read criticized Pinchbeck for his perceived egoism and narcissism, and his lack of desire to listen to anything his audience had to say related to his own explorations, certainly gave me that impression. I really appreciate the way Grant Morrison paid attention to his readers’ experiences when he was on his Invisibles journey, and did a lot of learning and growing through the interchange, and I would respond better to Pinchbeck if he shared more of this approach.

After attending the Pinchbeck appearance I biked to meet Anjali. We then met with Jason at the Goodfoot to get posters and flyers for our upcoming night there on October 3rd. Then we went to the Montage to use our complimentary Musicfest NW gift certificates (schwag of actual utility), and then on to Holocene for the Diplo/Switch/Beyonda show. We arrived before 11pm, and Beyonda was DJing to a bunch of skinny young white kids. 21 looks really young at my age. The kids were dancing and happy, Beyonda working hard to keep them dancing, playing mostly Baltimore club with double-time hip-hop vocals, mixing in guitar-y songs I don’t know, and some slower Southern hip-hop. At one point she played a Baltimore club remix of a Fleetwood Mac song off Rumours and a double-time remix of Crime Mob’s “Stilettos (Pumps).”. When she ended around 11:15pm the crowd in front of her cheered and applauded, which is quite an achievement for the opening DJ at any night. There was at least 15 minutes of nothing but relatively quiet background music between Beyonda and Switch. Anjali said that backstage Switch and Diplo were very impressed with Beyonda, saying that she was banging so hard they needed to bring it down if they were to have a chance of following her. Everyone was jammed into the front room for Beyonda’s set, and the Holocene staff didn’t open the doors to the back room until just before Switch went on stage in the back room. I was impatient for that to happen, as it was hot and crowded, two things I love when it is my night at Holocene, but that I was selfishly ungrateful for when attending another DJ’s night.

Apparently Switch had spent the last few nights at our friend Alter Echo’s studio, so Anjali took the opportunity to join Alter Echo, Switch and Diplo backstage while I chose to sit in the corner of the club marinating in an antisocial brew of depressive feelings relating to the redundancy of my existence as another white boy DJ, and the one-sided pointlessness of meeting more successful and technically-proficient white boy DJs than myself. We found out last year that Anjali’s cousin is friends with Diplo, so Anjali at least wanted to say, “Hi.” When the visiting DJs were talking to Anjali about what she plays, her attempts to describe her sound resulted in Switch (he is from Britain) proferring, “Desi Beats?” Apparently he went to college with with either Bobby Friction or Nihal, I forget which.

Switch finally went on, starting with the unmistakable a cappella opening of Run DMC’s “Peter Piper” which was certainly not what I was expecting. I have never heard any of the man’s work beyond his contributions to MIA’s Kala, but I had an idea about what he was going to do in his set, and old school hip-hop was not it. The song quickly became a club version of “Peter Piper” and I thought, “Oh, OK, more club versions of hip-hop songs,” but then the song slowly evolved into abstract noise. “Hmmmmm. Not a bad opening.” Silence. Diplo announces Switch on the mic. Next song starts. I wouldn’t even begin to claim to know enough about electronic music to be able to categorize most new beats as belonging to a specific genre. Who knows what genre or genres the songs Switch plays are called? Not me. Sounded like house. In fact all the tracks he played had such a similar sound that it seemed likely to me that they were all his own productions or remixes, but since I am totally unfamiliar with his solo productions, I can only guess. I never bothered to watch him during his entire set, so I have no idea what the nature of his performance was, or what technology he used to play his songs. Anjali said he was looking through a CD binder during his set. His second song was his and MIA’s Bamboo Banga track. All his songs had very clear, crisp mid-range synth textures, that weren’t competing with Bass Nectar for squelchiness, but had their own approach to midrange sonic emphasis. They frequently featured vocal cut-ups and stutters. He seemed to play full songs, with no blends, just some drop mixes, and some drop-outs. He heavily and repetitively relied on that effect where a loop of the song is chopped and chopped until the song seems to build and build in intensity, and then he would drop in the next track. People danced enthusiastically, and responded to the fat synth textures, and clapped and cheered between songs. His set was very sonically consistent, and while I appreciated the sounds, I never felt motivated to stand up, much less dance. As much as many people were enjoying his performance, the crowd in the back room seemed to thin towards the end of his set. Having not checked on the front room throughout this time, I had no idea how many people were left at the club, and I wondered how many people were going to be left by the time Diplo went on. Near the end of Switch’s set he played a song that centered on samples of Jimi Hendrix’s a cappella asides from “Foxy Lady” (I have since learned that this is Speaker Junk “Foxxy (Switch Remix).”)
Diplo took the stage, setting up during Switch’s last song. I can’t remember Diplo’s first song, but he started and maintained a very uptempo club pace, playing a drastically different instrumental with MIA’s vocals to “Bird Flu” early on. I can’t claim to remember every song, or the order he played them in, but I will attempt to give some accounting of what he played during a very dense hour and a half. Switch’s set was so crisp and the textures so distinctive, while Diplo’s sound was relatively more muddled and indistinct. I don’t know if it was the difference between the sound of Switch’s CDs versus Diplo’s Serrato system, but it was very noticeable to me. Switch’s set was slamming beats from one end to the other, but no matter how hard his beats, or crystalline the deliniation of his sonics, Diplo’s beats just swung more, had more forward momentum, and were just that much more propulsively danceable. Anjali was really up for dancing, but I could manage little more than to barely sway from side to side. I love to dance, but I have to really be motivated by the music, which rarely happens at a club. Diplo really stuck to the Baltimore club/related contemporary US urban house-offshoots sound and tempo. It was an hour before he dropped any hip-hop. He did feature a few clubby (remixes?) of underground guitar girl pop songs that I recognized not at all, except for Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon” (the original mix) towards the end of his set. He rarely played a song for more than a few minutes, and while he had no visuals cued to the vocals this time around, the density of his set was such that it would seem like he had been playing for a long time, when really very little time had passed at all. He played so many (to me) anonymously clubby beats, that I don’t know that I held on to as much as when I saw him last when he was playing more pop and hip-hop beats and vocals that I recognized. Among the few songs I did recognize were “Percolator” and what I assume was his remix of Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” Well into his set he actually played 5 or 6 Funk Carioca songs, which was 5 or 6 more than the last time I saw him. These included “Bucky Done Gun,” one with a “Sweet Dreams” sample that I believe Sujinho played at Atlas last month, and a metallic one with a girl vocalist. (I don’t claim to be an expert on Funk Carioca, although I do feature tracks in my sets.) Some people seemed to go crazy for the Funk, and the the bass drops, which needed no translation, appealed to everyone. Diplo got real cheeze at one point, playing a Baltimore club remix of Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al.” Anjali and I weren’t feeling it, but Diplo’s young fans certainly were, so he knew his crowd. He then played some older electro pop song that people in the crowd also seemed to vibe with nostalgically, but that I had never heard.

Early on Diplo had invited people up on stage to dance. For a while only one person took him up on the offer, but eventually the stage was clogged with dancers on all sides of him. They were crowding around him to such an extent, front, back, and both sides, that I wondered if he was bothered by the lack of space, but Anjali, who was wearing her glasses, says he never appeared irritated in the slightest. The throng on stage never let up, lending quite a Bacchanalian feel to the event. When Sujinho played last month he had a lot of dancers on the stage, but this was another order of magnitude greater than that.

Diplo played some version of MIA’s XR2 at some point. After a long time (an hour or so?) he played his first slower Southern hip-hop songs. He played UNK’s “2 Step” which went over so well that when he fx-ed it into noise the crowd seemed unhappy with him pulling the track until he then went into Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” and all was seemingly forgiven by a crowd that apparently loves top 40 Southern hip-hop. He played Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon” into Outkast’s “BOB.” Even though this mix got shaky, he didn’t abandon it, but corrected it in the mix, which he managed to do pretty quickly the few times during the night a mix got off. He played Daft Punk’s “Da Funk,” and a pitched-up House of Pain “Jump Around.” When he played MIA’s “Paper Planes” the crowd all sang along with the chorus when he pulled the volume down. Even given that this was a Diplo show I was surprised at everyone spontaneously singing along with a non-single track from an album that only just came out. He played Lil Mama’s “Lip Gloss” into Eve’s “Tambourine.” At this point Anjali and I began making our exit while he played Timbaland’s “Way I Are” into Timbo’s “Ayo Technology” production for 50 Cent. Diplo then played Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind.” Even though we were leaving, we heard silence and then cheers, so now that it was 2am, we assumed that his performance was over. We drove off though, so maybe he started up again.

A lot of the crowd at Holocene seemed pretty generic, and not as obviously hipster-centric as the crowd at Diplo’s last Doug Fir appearance. It’s not that there weren’t plenty of hipsters there, it is just that Diplo seems to have penetrated more into the mainstream based on the generic dressed-up-to-go-dancing crowd that was in attendance. He certainly knows how to get people going, and he really maintained the energy level of the crowd throughout his set. His job is to get people to dance, and he does that well, I just know that he is capable of far more unusual sets than what I have seen him play. Selfishly I just want to hear all sorts of cool and obscure stuff (especially international selections), and not the obvious crowd pleasers. Ah well, he plays a far more eclectic set than most big-name DJs, and I will no doubt be out to see him next time he comes around, assuming I don’t have a gig of my own that night.

IK

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