Patrick Rosal, Digging Poetics: the Mastermix

5 May

I dug through crates this past Sunday at a friend’s garage. Real crates, maybe a dozen filled with vinyl from the seventies, eighties and early nineties. We gasped and even threw our hands in the air a couple times when we pulled out some DeBarge 45, Freestyle’s “Don’t Stop the Rock” or New Order’s “Blue Monday”. There were the obscure but unforgettable Euro joints too, like Secession’s “Touch”, Antonia’s Italian-import, disco-version of “La Bamba”, and Tin Tin Duffy’s “Kiss Me”. It wasn’t until I actually read the Song of Solomon out of the Bible that I realized that song’s lyrics were lifted right from the sexiest of those holy verses.

In 1983, I had no idea the word syncretic existed, let alone what it meant, but I didn’t flinch when I heard the praise of litany Whiz Kid shouted out in his hit “Play That Beat”: “Punk rock, new wave and soul, pop music, salsa and rock and roll, calypso, reggae, rhythm and blues. Master mix those number one tunes!” Music was music. Still is.

Whiz Kid’s lyrics are a testimony to the death of the word master mix, which is now supplanted by the words remix or mashup. The earlier phrase, master mix, was meant to evoke mastery and skill. It was, of course, in line with a hip hop aesthetic of swagger and braggadocio. But the term was also subversive.

We weren’t aspiring merely to be master mixers, we aspired to mix the masters. We learned to break them down, the ones who held the power, the overlords, and put them back together again the way we wanted. And if the mix was good, people danced. The activists might refer to this as “agency” or “empowerment”. We called it mixing.

(It’s even funny to think where we got crates to hold all our records in the first place. We usually snuck behind Foodtown, tagged the back wall, then snatched the crates off the loading dock and piled near the dumpster. I remember grabbing a new, bright red one the first time, bringing it home and reading the text on the side: WARNING! Unauthorized use or possession of milk cases is against the LAW. Criminals WILL be prosecuted. I said, Fuck it, and dropped my twelve-inches right in.)

Check Whiz Kid again: “Master mix those number one tunes!” as if the chart-toppers by themselves would not hit, but chopped up in pieces and spliced to other sounds and other kinds of music they would, according to the Rakim mandate, move the crowd. Teachers and bullies might, in school and on the corner, cut you down, but you could go
home, reach into a stack of masters, from Mozart to Mtume, and cut them up. (Whiz Kid’s twelve-inch begins with the sound of a saw in quarter notes.)

The club scene has changed dramatically in thirty years. Step into a New York lounge and see how many people are just standing around with the music blaring. Strangers used to meet on the dance floor (some went home alone). In the post-Napster era it’s remarkable how one-dimensional the music is. DJs and producers have access to more beats than we ever had. If the lounge has wifi, you can make a request for a song the DJ doesn’t even have on his hard drive. He can download it right there. All the songs we knew, had heard snippets of, all available now, with a quick search and a broadband connection.

Maybe this is just dumb nostalgia, and I’m feeling sentimental about getting on my knees to dig through crates and spending twenty dollars on a few no-name imports hoping I have a horn hit or break that some other DJ doesn’t have, something to twist the played-out hook or corny pop song. All I know is we grinded to all kinds of music, any kind of music, if the DJ could flow. The S-and-M sultriness of “Dominatrix” blended with Strafe’s “Set it Off”. God bless Malcolm McClaren (I just learned he passed last month), who managed the Sex Pistol and produced the b-boy hits “Buffalo Gals” and “Double Dutch”. On KTU, the Latin Rascals gave us Kurtis Blow, Culture Club, Kraftwerk, John Rocca, and many more—seamlessly.

I don’t miss lugging those heavy-ass milk crates from basement to van to venue, the walk-ups, the set up and break down, spending my meager split at the diner, leaving the equipment in the driveway until morning. It was work—or something like it. Well, I’m a poet now, and not for nothing, but I’m still digging.

Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive , which won the Members’ Choice Award from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and most recently My American Kundiman, which won the Association of Asian American Studies 2006 Book Award in Poetry. He was awarded a Fulbright grant as a U.S. Scholar to the Philippines in 2009. His poems and essays have been published widely in journals and anthologies including American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, The Literary Review, Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Non-Fiction, The Beacon Best and Language for a New Century. He teaches in the Rutgers-Camden MFA Creative Writing program.

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