Wednesday, 30 December 2015


Martin Robinson writes in favour of ‘gatekeepers’.  I’ve written elsewhere of the need to recognise when communities of enquiry are operating as gated communities of enquiry and to be able to identify who is gatekeeping.

How are these ideas related? Are we using the same term to mean different things?

Martin’s example of the art gallery ‘gatekeeper’ sounds more like a curator to me. Certainly the people responsible for selecting which works of art are displayed in a gallery often go by this title. Perhaps this person, who appears to act as a tour guide is also a curator? By coincidence I’ve recently been reading a book, the title of which goes some way to describing its content – Curationism– How Curating Is Taking Over The Art World And Everything Else by DavidBalzer. The book takes particular aim at the rise of the celebrity curator and I mention it only because it may be of interest.

Denis Lawton’s description of the curriculum as ‘selections of a culture’ seems relevant to Martin’s post. I agree with Martin’s point that selections are not neutral. Selections imply omissions so perhaps ‘gatekeeper’ is apt. However I think not. And here are two reasons - aim and focus.

The gatekeeper’s role as I understand it is to maintain order by allowing entry only to that which is in keeping with what is already present. At the risk of being glib, the best-known gatekeeper in the Western world may be St Peter. His job is to ensure that only those who meet pre-ordained criteria are granted access – heaven is eternal, and I suggest, unchanging.

The curator’s aim is to provide rich content. That content will reflect or perhaps establish a tradition but gallery curators will also attempt to disrupt traditions and put works into conversation with each other. Taken as analogy for the curriculum, this comes close to a quote Martin and I both seem to like – Michael Oakshott’s ‘conversation of mankind’. But how do we establish a rich conversation and not simply what my good friend Jason Buckley (aka The Philosophy Man) terms ‘a distributed monologue’ where the same sentiments are expressed but from different mouths?

The gatekeeper is focused on the space he (for it usually is he) guards. He need not, in fact must not, venture too far but rather waits till approached and then makes his decision –to what extent does the would-be entrant resemble that which is already present. Kafka’s gate may well be open but curricula, conference spaces rarely are. (I was once told I was ‘pushing at an open door’ by a colleague. A year later, they conceded the door wasn’t quite as open as they had first perceived.) I associate gatekeeper with gated communities, which are established usually to keep the Barbarian’s at the gate. Actual gated communities have been described as ‘cognitive shelters’ which limit access to the unusual, the unfamiliar and the markedly different. My sense is that gated communities are actual and metaphorical ‘safe spaces’ – but that as they are established and maintained by the relatively powerful in society, they needn’t declare themselves as such.

The curator also has an eye on the space – assuming there is a space. (We can curate mixtapes and spotify lists, but I don’t think we can gatekeep them.) However the curator is required to be outward focusing and inquisitive for her role is actively seek inclusions not merely wait for them to present themselves for consideration.

I think Martin misunderstands ‘colonial epistemic injustices’ when he asks ‘should the colonial past be ignored?’ – I think what is at stake is not include or ignore but how the selections add to the conversation.  To take a well used example from my own university education, when we study Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ but are not made aware of Achebe’s ‘An Image of Africa’ we are initiated into an impoverished conversation.

I’m not sure the  ‘don’t complain about hearing jazz at a jazz club analogy’ holds up. My university, UCL describes itself as ‘London’s Global University’ not a ‘European Education University’. The analogy then would be of claiming to be a Music Venue and then only playing jazz, acting as if it was the only genre of music. But even then I’m not sure. A music venue is where I go to experience or perhaps consume music. But isn’t education about something far broader than that? A liberal education is about encountering a rich variety of ways of being and of developing autonomy to make educated choices isn’t it? Martin’s notion of Eurocentric education seems rather parochial by comparison and seems to be justified by a cultural relativism that I’m pretty sure he does not usually favour.

Martin ends by suggesting “set up alternative curricula, telling alternative stories and become a gatekeeper yourself.” I’m pretty sure he’s aware of the rich tradition of these very things in this country. But again, I would argue that whilst we can become curators ourselves, in order to become gatekeepers we must have authority over ‘a space’ of some kind. Which returns us to questions of who is gatekeeping which space and how does this relate to history and power.

'Gatekeeper' by Eska. 

Friday, 4 December 2015

My Notes from 'Reaching Out' 5

Thought I'd post my notes for the Listen Closely segment on the Reaching Out show I do with UK Hip-Hop legend Ty on Soho Radio.

Click here for a link to the show.

Listen Closely – Microphone Fiend, Eric B and Rakim

I’m going to focus mostly on Rakim.

In 2012, The Source ranked Rakim #1 on their list of the 'Top 50 Lyricists of All Time

In 1987 Rakim announced himself with Eric B for President. Three things about that record:

1.     Rakim’s flow – “I can swing on anything even the string of a harp”
Jazz – Theolonius Monk
2.     His delivery – Recorded sitting down, Marley Marl & Shan tried to persuade him to put more effort into it. (EPMD accused of biting his style)
3.     The break – Funky President and the start of a period in hip-hop where just about every song was based around a James Brown break. To quote DaddiO from Stetsasonic: “Tell the truth James Brown was old, till Eric & Ra came up with I got Soul”

On that song on the first album, Paid in Full,
The dismount of the first verse is one of the most quotable lyrics in Hip-hop:

I start to think and then I sink into the paper
Like I was ink,
When I’m writing I’m trapped in between the lines
I escape when I finish the rhyme
I got Soul

·      The writing/creative process
·      Contained & liberated by writing – (A theme in Microphone Fiend)
·      Mos Def & Talib Kweli quote this

First Mention of Rakim as a  ‘microphone fiend’ appears on this song:
The dismount of the 2nd verse:

I drip steam
Like a microphone fiend
Eager to MC is my theme
I get hype when I hear a drum roll
Rakim is on the mic
And you know I got soul.

Microphone fiend – My Melody verse 2
So what I’m a microphone fiend, addicted soon as I sing


Microphone Fiend - Eric B and Rakim
(Song covered by Rage Against the Machine and Fun Lovin Criminals)

Rappers rapping about drugs is not a particularly rare angle. Ice-T’s I’m Your Pusher, Biggie’s 10 Crack Commandments are just 2 examples. But in both cases the MC is literally or metaphorically the dealer, pushing dope product whilst remaining in control of the situation – “Don’t Get High off Your Own Supply” as Biggie reminds us. Microphone Fiend is something very different – the MC has “gotta habit” and fiends “for a microphone like heroin”.

Musically the song is sparse. As was more common in 1988, the song barely has a hook. It’s made great by the rapping. The break comes from Dundee’s finest funk band, The Average White Band’s School Boy Crush, perhaps explains the opening bars?

“I was a fiend before I became a teen,
I melted microphones, Instead of cones of ice-cream
Music orientated so when Hip-Hop was originated
Fitted like pieces of puzzle –complicated.”

This combines a few of Rakim’s favourite themes – Firstly, his identity as an MC. We have the idea of being an MC as a calling, a craving, an addiction that has to be fed – and one that starts in childhood. Names for his MC identity include the microphonist, the microphone soloist. In his hand the mic becomes a musical instrument.

The “music orientated” presumably refers to the fact that Rakim came from a musical family, his aunt being singer Ruth Brown.. As he says “It’s inherited, it runs in the family.” So Hip-Hop’s emergence came at a perfect time for him.

But I think thatFitted like Pieces of puzzle, complicated”  might also refer to the writing process. Constructing a verse so all the pieces fit. Rakim is the best rapper rapping about rapping.

Even if driven by a craving, the MC is a craftsman, putting pieces together:
“I’m raging, ripping up the stage and
Don’t it sound amazing
Cause every rhyme is made and
Thought of, Cuz it’s sort of an addiction”

Rakim is the best rapper rapping about rapping. He wants to ‘move the crowd’ but he also wants the crowd to appreciate the effort and skill that has gone into the construction of the rhyme.

There’s an intensity to the music, to Rakim’s delivery and within the lyrics. For example,  'Cool cos I don’t get upset, I kick a hole in the speakers, pull the plug then I jet'. These always struck me as more intense, more unnerving than a lot of rappers shouting about what they do. As Rakim puts it “The thrill of suspense is intense you’re horrified, But this ain’t the cinema or “Tales of the Darkside”. In his stillness, his monotone delivery and his lyrical intensity, Rakim for me was always realer, (and even more threatening) than say NWA.

The sudden explosion from order to chaos – from cool to kicking a hole in the speaker. From chilling to needing to write, to needing to perform. And I’d say this an intensity well illustrated through the metaphor of addiction .

I think he’s names the shift in the status of the MC  (who at this point is still named after the DJ remember) when he says:

“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re about to see
A pastime hobby about to be to
Taken to the maximum…”

Rakim raised expectations of what an MC could do – and as he did so, he pointed out that was doing so.

Eric B and Rakim - Microphone Fiend