Fathers on Wax: On Syl Johnson

Syl Johnson. Photo by Masahiro Sumori.

On a Friday night in December, I joined a sold-out crowd at Southpaw in Brooklyn to see the soul musician Syl Johnson. Johnson had recently released a comprehensive box set which was panned by music writer Douglas Wolk in his review on Pitchfork Media, creating a minor controversy. In the soul and “cratedigging” hip-hop communities, there was a palpable shock. Numero Group, the record label which released the box set, is easily the best out of the handful of labels dedicated to finding and releasing forgotten quality soul. Syl Johnson is no slouch himself; over his long career, he has written and sung a number of incredible songs (the hit version of “Take Me to the River,” “Sock It to Me,” “Different Strokes,” “Is It Because I’m Black?” “Any Way the Wind Blows”). However, there really should have been no surprise that Wolk on one side and such luminaries as the RZA on the other would come to such different conclusions. For this discrepancy was indicative of a greater gap, not only between two different aesthetics, but between two different histories, and two different worlds.

 

The show itself was truly amazing. Syl was remarkably spry and unsettlingly blue for a seventy-four year old man, a consummate performer despite his age. Remarkable versatile, he barrelled through R&B stompers and then slowed down to carefully enunciate each note, Al Green-style, in his ballads. He was so at ease performing that he was able to play rhythm guitar while singing, a relatively rare ability among soul artists.

Not only was the performance impressive, but the very existence of the show was poignant. Syl Johnson never did manage to make the impression on American pop culture that Marvin Gaye or James Brown did. A ubiquitious presence on the R&B charts in the ’60s and ’70s, he fell into obscurity during the ’80s and retired. He remained in retirement until a relative told him that one of his songs, “Different Strokes,” had been sampled by the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Shame on a Nigga.” Syl always had a mercenary streak, and he figured that the use of his music in hip-hop made the timing right for a comeback. Indeed, much of the audience that night had discovered Syl’s music through hip-hop. Part of what made that night an incredible experience was sharing it with the community often proposed but only seldom realized by hip-hop: a diverse brother- and sisterhood forged through a deep knowledge and love of popular music.Watching Syl perform before an appreciative audience, I felt joy at seeing a kind of justice done, at seeing a small group of dedicated aficionados defy the judgment of the market.

This joy, apparently, was not shared by Douglas Wolk. From his review:

Syl Johnson is– there’s no other way to put it– an also-ran. . . . He made the R&B charts 19 times over the years, but never really broke through to a pop audience. . . This isn’t even the full career survey its title implies; more than half of his 19 R&B hits happened after the period documented here, the bulk of them on Hi Records, where he was effectively the second-tier Al Green. (His only Top-10 R&B hit was a cover of Green’s “Take Me to the River”.) It’s a tribute to a local guy who really made good only long after the fact. . . . He spent most of the era covered here on tiny Chicago independent labels that didn’t have any other big acts, most famously Twilight, aka Twinight, in which he was a shareholder. A lot of his mid-60s material was indifferently recorded at best. . . . The broader problem, though, was that he was a totally solid talent in an era of greatness, a deft trendspotter in a period of nonstop innovation. He was a hard shouter, but not quite as hard as Wilson Pickett or James Brown; he was funny, but not as funny as Joe Tex, whose “Skinny Legs and All” he answered with “I’ll Take Those Skinny Legs.”

Wolk’s review is filled with questionable assumptions and small but significant errors. Quality production often improves quality material, but I enjoy quality material even when the production is flawed. Further, high production values are often out of reach for many performers. And Numero Group often must use material that has deteriorated over time, so what Wolk believes is “indifferent recording” may be nothing more than aged tape, damaged masters or even fidelity loss as the result of digital transfer. Wolk also argues that just because Johnson never broke out of a local market, he must have been an inferior artist. This view is anachronistic. In an era of fragmented radio markets, only a few artists, white or black, made the nationwide impact expected of big artists today. Irma Thomas, for example, never broke the Billboard Top 10 or even the Billboard R&B top 10, but is a veritable superstar in New Orleans.

The real problem here, however, is not in the details, but with Wolk’s suggestions that the value of someone’s art is forever fixed, and forever linked to money. After at least thirty years of underground/indie music and its corresponding D.I.Y. aesthetic, it’s jarring that a reviewer for a major music publication can equate commercial and artistic success without reservation. Why should anyone share Wolk’s strange preoccupation with setting up tiers of artists and hierarchies of quality? I am satisfied with performers who are only “totally solid talents,” a difficult enough standard to meet. Who cares that Johnson was never signed to a major label, or that he never made it on to the Billboard Pop Charts? Wolk’s points are all, of course, significant for those who need to assign each and every product in the cultural marketplace an appropriate cultural exchange value; that is to say, the needs and interests of capital. But for those interested in qualitythat is, in our own values, determined not on the basis of exchange but on what these works do for us and our societythey’re not terribly informative.

Yet, while Wolk is incorrect about implications, he is mostly correct about the facts. Syl Johnson never had the widespread commercial success or popularity of the Motown superstars or even his labelmate, Al Green. So why have so many hip-hop producers sampled songs by artists like Syl Johnson or Marva Whitney and largely avoided, even before samples were outlawed, recognizable breaks from more popular works? Why are mash-ups of popular works the exceptions, and not the rule?

Perhaps, in a never-ending effort to distinguish themselves from the competition, hip-hop producers are always looking for rarer and rarer samples. Such competition clearly does play a role in the sampling of obscure beats. The very term “cratedigger” clearly valorizes those DJs who find the most obscure samples: the best diggers are those who can dig the deepest. But competition is not a sufficient explanation, however. For one thing, DJing is ultimately a practical profession. People never stop dancing to Madonna or Michael Jackson, why risk an obscure beat when you can play a surefire dance floor filler? More crucially, it doesn’t explain why DJs tend to quote the same obscure passages again and again. You may have never heard of “Amen, Brother” by The Winstons, but I guarantee that you’ve heard the five seconds of that song that constitute the “Amen Break.” Lyn Collins’ single “Think” never charted, but has been sampled for over a hundred different hip-hop songs. This sort of clustering disproves the competition theory: instead of avoiding each other’s samples, hip-hop producers eagerly quote each other’s material.

Looking at what gets sampled, we can discern another commonality, a tendency for
“cratedigging” producers to confine their samples to a very specific range of years. RZA’s samples, for example, almost exclusively come from one of three groups: southern soul, particularly acts associated with Hi Records and with Stax Records, from the years 1967-1971; Motown groups from the same period, after the writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland left the label but before Motown moved to Los Angeles; and Philly soul from the early seventies to 1979. RZA was born in 1969; none of these records was released after his tenth birthday. Dr. Dre’s production style is known for its close association with the sound of L.A.-based Parliament Funkadelic, whose most notable albums were released from 1975 to 1978, when Dr. Dre was thirteen. Discussing his influences in an interview with Scratch magazine, Dre explicitly connects his beats to a pre-adolescent nostalgia:

I’m a big P-Funk fan, that was it for me growing up. Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, I was influenced by all of those guys. . . . Just listening to the way they put their records together. That appreciation came from my mother. There was always music being played in my house when I was growing up, and that’s all I heard was 70’s soul. And then the DJing thing came along.

Dre spent his childhood listening to these records, not just as a cultural product to be consumed, but as formative familial and communal experiences. At a later point, Dre became a DJ―significantly, not a musician who mimics what he heard on the record, but an artist working within a contemporary context (i.e. the MC/DJ culture of hip-hop). However, instead of aiming for novelty, Dre consciously made records that sounded similar to the ones with which he grew up. Curiously, unlike other DJs, Dre often opts not to sample: “Most of my music has been played. . . . if we were going to sample something, we would try to at least replay it, get musicians in and replay it. If it was something we couldn’t replay, we would use the sample. I’ve tried to stay away from it as much as possible throughout my career from day one.” The artistic philosophy is essentially modernist. Dr. Dre defines a traditional past in which all signs were understood through a shared context, then creates works that reference that past but do not attempt to retrieve it.


Like many Modernists, the cratediggers reconstruct a past that never existed. RZA’s parents may have owned Syl Johnson’s “Different Strokes,” but even if they did, they probably spent more time listening to the Motown classics. The work of RZA and similar producers instead draws from the margins, the music only occasionally heard, the incidental music. Dialogue shorn from context and soundtrack cues from the kung-fu movies float in and out of his productions, a reference to days freely squandered watching films at a dollar theater with Ol’ Dirty Bastard: “Early on, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and I used to watch kung fu movies, leave the theater, do some kung fu fighting, get on the train, keep fighting, and then run into MCs and musically battle them like it was a kung fu fight. That was my weekend habit.” The kung-fu films represent not only a free and innocent part of his childhood, but also a childhood fantasy. RZA clearly identified and perhaps still identifies with the heroes of those films, heroes who are disadvantaged and isolated and rely on skill, heroes who stand up for the defense of their communities and combat unjust government agents. The nostalgic narrative constructed by RZA does not accurately represent his childhood, but improves on it. RZA’s production fulfills a childhood dream, in which RZA is empowered to combat social wrongs and the Syl Johnsons of the world are honored along with their more commercially successful counterparts.

In his recent autobiography, written with the assistance of dream hampton, Jay-Z concisely describes this ethos:

We were kids without fathers, so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift . . . We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves. That was part of the ethos of that time and place, and it got built in to the culture we created. Rap took the remnants of a dying society and created something new. Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced, but we took their old records and used them to build something fresh.

Wolk is interested in the judgments of a monolithic music history, with winners and losers and one unalterable storyline. As a result, in his review of Syl Johnson, he misses the point entirely. The cratediggers do not passively receive the judgments of music critics and markets. They choose their own ancestors, defying the basic assumptions and realities of a world prepared to condemn them to poverty. The cratediggers return to history only to rewrite it. And when they emerge, it is with a new world.

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4 Responses to Fathers on Wax: On Syl Johnson

  1. Woody Guthrie reports that his father (a music professor?) used to tell him, “don’t ask whether the music is good; ask what it’s good for.” Which it appears is the main thrust of this piece: use value vs. objective value. What still bugs me here (and overall I love this piece, as you know) is the feeling that it’s not quite as simple as that. For instance, you write:

    “it’s jarring that a reviewer for a major music publication can equate commercial and artistic success without reservation. Why should anyone share Wolk’s strange preoccupation with setting up tiers of artists and hierarchies of quality.”

    Well, those are actually two unconnected (logically) questions. One might very well set up tiers of artists (as does Harold Bloom) without the slightest attention to — in fact, with derision towards — the market; one just has to believe in absolute value. Absolute value may not be exchange value. In fact, on its surface, exchange value would seem to be a somewhat poor candidate for absolute value — what will Wolk say if this box set suddenly, and stunningly, becomes a major hit? What if in 20 years, all anyone can listen to, and thus buy, is Syl Johnson? Indeed, I’m convinced you don’t want “exchange value,” except perhaps as a mystifying narrative — you want monopolistically determined value, a la Adorno and Horkheimer… these tiers are a clear marker of supermarket style monopoly distribution…

    At any rate, the trick here is that it becomes hard to say what the “justice” is if you don’t believe in absolute value (because why isn’t Wolk entitled to his own values and aesthetic? After all, his pitchfork gig (and culture, etc.) is plenty useful for him. You hint at this in tying this justice to socio-economic justice for people at the bottom — a connecting I find tantalizing (and indeed, there might be something interesting to be said about a democratic culture versus one obsessed with hierarchies, and the way in which Americans fixates on cultural hierarchies to reify class differences).

    But I would be curious how you respond to my distinctions (and claim that you under-distinguish) between exchange/absolute values, and more technically, exchange/monopoly values.

  2. dylansuher says:

    Obviously, this point came up in editing, and I’m glad you took the time to flesh it out in a comment, since it is clearer to me what your objection is and it is clearer to me as to how I should address it. I think you’re right that I under-distinguish between exchange/absolute values, and I appreciate the chance to develop this thought in greater depth here in the comments, since it’s a relatively extensive sidebar.

    In short, what I precisely object to is the idea of “tiers” — a grand hierarchy of all art, from better to worse, that exists as a natural fact in the universe, as opposed to a subjective preference of one art work to another or even an objective preference of one art work to another based on a specific set of criteria. It’s not a matter of me believing that all cultural productions are equal, as I certainly don’t. I also don’t believe that criticism is all absolutely subjective. What I object to is confusing one’s view, whether completely subjective or formed with a degree of objectivity, for an unerring universal law.

    To explain further, let’s break down this concept of exchange value versus use value (and please excuse me, Raffi, for oversimplifying. I would like to try to speak English as opposed to Marxist on this blog if I can help it, so as to talk to a broader audience). So Marx distinguishes between two sorts of value: “use-value,” that is, the practical value of a thing, paper is valuable to me because I need to write, and “exchange-value,” that is, price, that paper is worth ten cents. Marx’s crucial insight, as I see it, is that there is no natural relationship between the two. To say, for example, that if a bar of chocolate is one dollar, and a horse is worth ten thousand dollars, then a horse is ten thousand times more useful to me than a bar of chocolate, is a perfectly contentless statement. What does it mean for a bar of chocolate to be one dollar useful and a horse to be ten thousand dollars useful? And how is the usefulness of the chocolate in any way equivalent to the usefulness of the horse? To say that supply and demand justifies exchange value is dodging the question: it’s just as meaningless to say people want a horse ten thousand times more than people want a bar of chocolate. Again, it’s clearly a different sort of want, and not something that can be easily quantified, in any case.

    Marx’s explanation of this discrepancy was “commodity fetishism,” that what we treat as the natural relations between commodities (“price is determined by the law of supply and demand”) is really an expression of a social relationship. So there is no mystical, naturally occuring law of supply and demand that governs value. There is instead a decision that is made by us as a society, based on the values of that society. This should not be misinterpreted simplistically, as a direct and conscious decision, although it should be noted that a direct and conscious decision can be made (fixed pricing regimes, but also gas taxes and tariffs and other related economic policies). More often, it is a decision made indirectly, say, that price ought to be determined by scarcity, or that it ought to be based on a socially determined value of labor, or that it ought to be determined arbitrarily (“tulipomania,” for example—supply and demand explains why some tulips are worth more than others and why a bubble might arise, but not why anyone would want a tulip in the first place…).

    The problem with “commodity fetishism” from the perspective of a critic—and this is really the crux of my argument—is not that such an arrangement exists, but that it is assumed natural. It is perfectly fine for us as a society to choose a set of rules to determine price (or cultural value, as the case may be). The reasons for a particular set of rules may or may not be justified, but that’s another issue. The important thing is that we understand that those are the changeable rules of a society and not the immutable laws of nature.

    So now let’s return to your comment. There are a lot of different types of values there: objective value, use value, monopoly value, absolute value, so on. I would prefer to reduce it to three sorts of value (and you may comment further if you object): exchange value, use value, absolute value. Exchange value is what the cultural product is worth in a cultural marketplace, i.e. where it ranks in comparison to other works of art, the value it has within a community or a defined cultural narrative. Use value is what it is worth to us personally, the impact it has on us individually or as a community, what it does. Absolute value is where the product ranks on a grand continuum of all cultural products, that is, the natural, instrinsic value of that work of art, which we describe with words like “masterpiece” or “first-rate,” words that assign a rank without giving a specific referent for that rank. My problem with Wolk is that I feel he assumes the socially defined exchange value for the natural absolute value; in other words, that he engages in cultural commodity fetishism.

    Hopefully, the distinctions I made in the short version are now clearer. There’s nothing wrong with comparing two works of art, or saying that one is better than another. There’s nothing even intrinsically wrong with picking a set of criteria and judging a work of art “objectively” based on those criteria, based on a subjective concept of what it is that you think art ought to do. What I disagree with is what Wolk does, which is a) to not pick a set of criteria and instead use the tautology of exchange value and b) to treat your subjectively chosen framework as the objective way that art should be judged. And as you point out, the reason, ultimately, that what Wolk does is objectionable is that it forces out other frameworks, other cultural narratives, that have the capacity to liberate. A critic or a society can decide that certain art is important, but so long as we understand that it is a mutable decision, we can change that canon to reflect different values.

    The nettlesome question now is, of course, absolute value. Without reference to absolute value, how can I say that the framework I choose is any better than Wolk’s? Well, I can say that my framework is based on values that produce a world I would like to see, a more just world, but that’s really punting the question (so why would my world be any more just than Wolk’s…). I think, following Mencius, that there are certain heuristics for determining that an “is” is closer to an “ought,” but that’s a whole other issue, so I’ll let that sit for the time being. In short, I think there ultimately is no way, but that doesn’t mean that absolute value doesn’t exist, just that neither Wolk nor I can ever have perfect knowledge of it. To speak your language, I’d leave absolute value to He who is dayan emet.

    So that is the thinking behind this piece, which, ironically disregarding my own advice, may not have been evident simply from the content. Well, it’s appended to the comments, in any case. I’d be happy to further develop this line of thought, Raffi (and anyone else who’d like to join in), if you’re interested.

  3. I think this is interesting, and I mostly like your answers; rather than replying directly, I want to throw out more distinctions (since I think the social questions are the only historically honest way of getting at the philosophical ones)

    1) The difference between use value and labor value — these are also not identical. It takes much more work to handprint a newspaper than to mechanically print it; there is little discernible difference in use.

    2) The difference between exchange price and monopoly value. Interestingly, good movies (aesthetically) and bad movies, financially successful movies and unsuccessful ones, etc. etc., all have the same ticket price. So their “exchange value” for the customer is identical. But their value to the monopolistic studio that produces them is vastly different.

    Actually, I think these two points add up to an important distinction — at least under capitalism — between production value and consumption value. In this case, a part of your argument against Wolk is that you’re interested primarily in the latter, while he’s interested in the former. Or more precisely, you’re interested in production value within a parasitic mode of production that feeds on the consumption from the dominant mode (ie, cratediggers going through old records).

    Part of what I like about analyzing the discussion this way is that it allows us to start to contextualize these different accounts of value, and to see what social structures (or parts of the social structure) they are useful to. It also, I think, problematizes your account of crate-digging as utopia; it is more a “pick up the tools where you find them” response to the monopoly culture industry… but that may be a side point.

  4. dylansuher says:

    Sorry it’s taken me a long time to respond to your follow-up comment, Raffi. I initially drafted a comment that responded to your questions directly, and I felt, by the end, that it was an unsatisfactory, piecemeal approach to responding to your concerns.

    The reason directly responding was inadequate is that I think, in a fundamental way, we’re not on the same page here. It seems to me that your questions arise out of a traditional Marxist interpretation of culture, in which a monopoly capital directly manifests itself in a monopoly culture. This, at least, is my understanding of the argument, which I confess is a poor understanding; please expand upon this or explain this argument if you feel so inclined. I don’t think the relationship is as direct or as monovocal, particularly after ’68. It seems to me that monopoly capital works in a more complicated way, and supports a variety of cultural oppositions, or, more properly labeled, cultural niches. For example, 20th Century Fox is responsible for the noxious, mainstream 27 Dresses and the “indie” films of Fox Searchlight films. Most notably, the famously “anti-corporate” Rage Against The Machine was signed to Epic records, a subsidiary of Sony. Monopoly capital is able to subsume and co-opt a variety of cultural products, even those that actively preach against monopoly capital! In other words, revolution has become another brand.

    This difference is significant to responding to your comment in two ways. First, finding a one to one correspondence between the terms you identify and their equivalents in cultural capitalism (or, really, capitalist culture) is only necessary or possible if you believe that there is a direct relationship between capitalist economics and capitalist culture. I don’t believe there is. I believe that the material conditions of capitalist society lead to certain forms of culture analogous to capitalist markets, but simply analogous to those markets. Not every element will translate. For example, what is the “labor value” of a cultural product? Virtuosic skill? Production value? What relevance does it have? What I am concerned about primarily is not, as I am in the economic sphere, capital as exploitative, but the way in which capital alienates and the way in which capitalist culture supports an economic system that results in exploitation.

    Second, if we are interested in undermining monopoly capital’s stranglehold on the production of culture, it would seem to me that the answer lies not simply in producing culture that is critical of capitalism, but in modes of cultural production that threaten the production modes of capitalism. So I agree with your view that cratedigging represents “a parasitic mode of production that feeds on the consumption from the dominant mode”; for me, that is precisely where the radical potential lies. And it’s also very much a “pick up the tools where you find them” approach; as, of course, is proletarian revolution, whereby the bourgeoise produces, above all, its own gravediggers. As a side point, I’m very leery of the Marxist criticism binary between culture producers and culture consumers: whether it exists in any real way and whether I accept that one ought to be preferred over the other. A “consumer” who responds to a monopoly culture production in a way that challenges the ideology of the production (ex. someone who responds to the Twilight series with erotic fan fiction) is far preferable to me than a “producer” who works within the existing system and ineffectually challenges the governing ideology.

    I don’t pretend that this is the most effective counter-argument to the ideas implied by your comment, but I at least want to make sure that we’re talking about the same thing before I address your specific concerns. I am genuinely interested in hearing whether you feel that my representation of your thoughts is accurate, and what arguments you’d offer in defense of them, since I am less familiar with Adorno and Herkheimer than you are, and therefore less familiar with the strongest versions of these arguments.

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