Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Who am I?

Graham from The Scroll of Bifurcating Considerations website has penned a nice piece on the chorus to Find Out, showing how it echoes Nietzsche in the belief that we shall 'become ourselves'. It's a thought-provoking analysis and I'm sure Ish knows Nietzsche (I don't) but "You shall become the person you are" seems a decidedly modern European sentiment. Let's contrast that with an aphorism this time from a non-European tradition, by Abdul Hakim Murad (aka Timothy Winter, Lecturer in Divinity at the University of Cambridge): "Islam is not about ‘being yourself’; it is about improving yourself."

The monoculture loves this vague notion of 'finding oneself'; it's a cliche, the man who drops his everyday life and goes off wandering aimlessly to 'find himself'. The idea is that we have the 'real me' buried deep within and that if we travel enough or immerse ourselves in whatever our 'self' tells us it wants for long enough, we'll be there. But what is this 'self' we're being commanded to? Big question, but don't we all feel the self has many possibilities? For practical purposes we could say we have a higher possibility and a lower possibility. "Find out", then, in the sense of transcend your lower possibility, reach for your celestial self. I read an interview with Ish once where he distilled his philosophy. If memory serves it was "elevate. relate. enlighten". Elevation and transcendence are at the heart of all true art and all authentic religion. It's an epic battle to turn your back on that lower possibility. You feel a "pain in your neck, comes from staring at stars" but who said transcendence was easy? Moreover, as another of Shabazz's themes remind us, "ain't promised daylight". Life is fast. My friend's little brother passed away in his sleep a few months ago, he was 24 years old, healthy, and happy. But his heart simply stopped beating and that was that.

Find out. The urgency with which he repeats those words is palpable. The monoculture or "depraved devil's heart system", with its marketing men will welcome the ego and ensure it stays super-sized, but listen to the chorus again. The emphasis is on those two words "find out", not on "you" or "love" or "want" or "need". Ish is clearly taking the spotlight off the ego and its desires and shining it onto the path.

The second part of Graham's piece is about how if you look at the last word of each line in the chorus it can be reread in fascinating ways. This is beautiful. I realised the same thing when I transcribed the lyrics to Rebirth of Slick ten years ago for the sole Digable Planets website during that maddening dry spell. The first words of the first eight lines are: we, them, us, you, he, she, our, they; and of the next eight: who, where, why, when, what, how, was, and finally after all those questions, "'cause". Repeated listens can reveal new musical details and that has always been true of Ish's work, but to me the amazing thing was just finding out more about life, black music, african-american history, and thus finally 'getting' many of (though still nowhere near all) those references on Blowout Comb for instance. Transcribing lyrics has to be added as a third way in which we can engage with these messages.

Q: What's wrong with going off wandering?
A: Don't get me wrong; I'm all for wandering and getting free but if it's an important journey you have to know where you're going or you might get lost!

Q: Where can I find the interview with that quotation from Butterfly?
A: Brian Coleman's Check the Technique: Liner notes for hip-hop junkies (Villard Books, 2007) Its illuminating interview has Butterfly and Doodlebug speaking on what was going on around the time Reachin' came together.