Abstract

Abstract: Disabled bodies and disabling spaces— especially the recording studio— shape the sound iconicity of hip-hop vocal performances. The disabled voice is the audible sign by which hip-hop artists trouble cultural definitions of the self and other; exceptionalism and failure; the natural and techno-mediated; comedy and tragedy; and aesthetic play and seriousness. Hip-hop vocal performances also function as self-conscious acts of transvaluation that challenge the discursive dominance of ableism. A materialist approach to vocal performance resists reducing voice to a silent metaphor for race, oppositionality, or liberation; and it emphasizes, instead, the physiological and social processes that render hip-hop voices unique, particular, and audible. It emphasizes the agency hip-hop artists possess in seeking out disabled bodies and assuming disabled identities for aesthetic and political ends. Thus, the body is returned to the analysis of style.



I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms.

— Ovid, Metamorphoses

but I sound better since you
cut my throat, the checkerboard is also a
chess board. it's also a cutting board and a

sound board. it's also a winding sheet and a
sound booth.

— Fred Moten, Hughson's Tavern

In 1886, Sir Morrell Mackenzie, M.D., published The Hygiene of the Vocal Organs: A Practical Handbook for Singers and Speakers. The study was based on the doctor's twenty-five years of medical and therapeutic fieldwork in London, England, "ministering to diseased throats, and every singer or actor of note in this country" (ix). "I have thus had very unusual opportunities," explains Mackenzie, "of studying the conditions which affect the voice for good or for evil" (x). As part of the period's general obsession with hygiene (from "ladies' under-clothing" to "the problems of drainage and sewage"[2]), Mackenzie's Victorian-era handbook outlines "common-sense rules for the culture and management of the voice" (3): he identifies staccato and tremolo as "evils" to be avoided (xii); he advises against performing outside or, similarly, inside buildings "of bad acoustic construction" (102); and he warns "ladies of an impressionable nature" that "violent and prolonged weeping is likely to dull the voice" (102; emphasis added). On the one hand, Mackenzie recognizes that, both in everyday life and in artistic performance, one's voice is not simply a given— it is subject to contingency. Physical and moral labor, as well as the unequal distribution of economic and cultural capital, marks each body and, therefore, each voice differently and at different times. On the other hand, Mackenzie clearly treats the voice as an object to be disciplined in the face of such contingency: in a world that divides neatly into good and evil, the success or failure of the voice is ultimately based on its edification. The right voice is an index of good, clean, and purposive living.

Mackenzie's handbook means to erase any kind of difference through the implementation and administration of best practices related to the well being of the body politic and the sounding of its uniform, representative voice. A century later, and a continent over, however, in the South Bronx, New York, hip-hop artist KRS-One proudly makes those differences of labor and capital audible.1 In the culture of hip-hop, the wrong and bad voice may, in fact, be the right and best voice. In a revealing couplet from Boogie Down Productions's 1987 recording "Criminal Minded," KRS-One raps, "Everything that flows from out of my larynx / Takes years of experience and bottles of Beck's." Time ("years of experience") permits KRS-One to hone a vocal style characterized by steady pacing and over-enunciated strong stresses as well as the occasional slip into his mother's Jamaican patois. But the rigors of touring (e.g., repeat performances in venues "of bad acoustic construction" [Mackenzie 102]) and the indulgences of party and club culture— represented by Beck's beer— take a toll on his body, of which the "larynx" (voice box) is a synecdoche. That toll is constitutive of his voice's uniqueness. Touring and party culture provide experiential gravitas, or what Roland Barthes calls "the grain" (181); and the grain authenticates and authorizes KRS-One's voice and position in the field of hip-hop.

KRS-One's couplet casts his response to the disabling performance context of early hip-hop in heroic terms. However, the physical demands and emotional pressures of performing are not always readily available to such self-mythologizing or, for that matter, reducible to a neatly rhymed couplet. For example, in 1997, as a result of excessive drinking and smoking while on tour, Run-DMC's Darryl McDaniels began to suffer from spasmodic dysphonia. The disorder causes the larynx's involuntary movements; as a result, the voice continually gives out, making it impossible to rap with any consistency. As Ice-T explains, in a conversation about McDaniels, "You're a rapper. Your tool is your voice… . If you lose your voice, it's like being a piano player and losing your fingers … how cruel is that? That's the worst thing that can happen to you" (Villeneuve). McDaniels's vocal disability, in conjunction with his alcoholism, led to a period of suicidal depression.

That said, without romanticizing disability or minimizing its real physical and emotional effects, I would like to suggest that vocal disability is, to an unacknowledged degree, a desirable practice in hip-hop performance. Disability refers to a history of intersecting medical, legal, and cultural meanings related to health, citizenship, and stigma, respectively. Following from Joseph N. Straus, I define disability broadly as any form of "culturally stigmatized bodily difference" (3), including impairment. It is a socially determined "minority identity" as opposed to an exclusively physiological condition (Siebers, Disability Theory 4). Disability is not a problem in need of correction but a positive resource, especially as it pertains to aesthetics.2 By conceiving of disability as a practice, however, I mean to propose three separate yet related qualifications. First, the meaning of disability depends on the dynamic relationships, dispositions, and (unequal) power distributions within a given field of production (Bourdieu, Field 30)— in this case, rap music and hip-hop culture. Second, disability includes those individuals who are defined as such by external agents and legislative forces, yes, but also those individuals who actively seek out and assume disabled conditions and identities. Third, disability is temporal insofar as it involves physiological, social, and political processes. Disability as a practice, then, marks out differences of degree, agency, and time.

In "The Organ of the Soul: Voice, Damage, and Affect," Laurie Stras astutely observes,

The damaged voice continues to be accepted, even preferred, in many genres within popular music, to the point of optimum levels of damage appearing suitable for different types of singing: the gravel-voice of the rock singer is not interchangeable with the subtle hoarseness of the jazz vocalist. Many singers have learned to simulate or manipulate damage in the voice, so further revealing the affective value of the sound; and in a reversal of what might be considered normate associations, damage here seems to be linked with concepts of authority, authenticity, and integrity. (174)

Hip-hop exists beyond the purview of Stras's essay, which focuses on blues, rock, and jazz vocalists from the mid-twentieth century; and, as the next section of my essay outlines, hip-hop's aesthetic and ethical relationship to disability is autonomous from those other musical genres. Nevertheless, Stras's essay makes the important case for an "essential" relation between disability and vocal performance in general terms: "Trauma typically forces a disjunction between body and voice … but the integration and healing of trauma is achieved through reestablishing narrative, through giving voice to the trauma. Nonetheless, the disrupted singing voice cannot help but tell of trauma, for the damage leaves its trace at sublinguistic levels" (176). That "trace" affects listeners, initiating "a process of catharsis" (179). Stras is correct in noting that disability throws into sharp relief the "sublinguistic" aspects of vocal performance, or what Steve McCaffery calls the "protosemantic" (e.g., "the full expressive range of predenotative human sonorities: grunts, howls, shrieks, and hisses" [172]). However, Stras's "hermeneutic of trauma" remains too restrictive because it negatively frames disability as inevitably injurious, diminishing the importance and positivity of play, style, and pleasure (including humor) for the hip-hop artist and listener, respectively.

Disability is a desirable practice in hip-hop because it stamps the "sound iconicity" of vocal performances. "Sound iconicity" is a phrase coined by Charles Bernstein (17), and it refers to those features of vocal performance that escape signification: pitch, register, tempo, amplification, et cetera. But sound iconicity doesn't just happen. Rapped vocals represent interpretive acts and aesthetic decisions materially grounded in the body and the recording studio. Put another way, I am interested in the provenance of hip-hop's vocal poetics— the "habits and practices of thinking and making" (Jarvis 932) mediated, in particular, by disabled bodies and disabling spaces. This means I will not be reading the voice as a metaphor for race, oppositionality, or liberation. Metaphor silences, mystifies, and dematerializes the vocal performance. In addition, following from Roland Barthes once more, I will resist— as much as is possible— the impressionism of the "adjective" (178).

Vocal performances are audible, incarnate, and particular. But to hear and appreciate them as such means attending on where voices actually comes from. Thus, the convergence of Disability Studies and hip-hop prompts a timely methodological break: it turns the listening ear's attention to the otherwise hidden, inaudible, or unknown.

*

Hip-hop culture is a form of vernacular theory and practice.3 The vernacular is rooted in an archive of everyday language and images shared by disenfranchised citizens. The vernacular is grounded in local communities and concerns yet, in accordance with the logic of late capitalism and globalization, transmissible and adaptable to distant locales. The vernacular is also synonymous with improvisation, which requires sensitivity to, and awareness of, changing situational exigencies. Finally, the vernacular is a renewable resource, perpetually engaged in the dialectical process "of tearing down old vocabularies and proposing new ones" (Magee 9). In hip-hop culture, the idiomatic phrase, flip the script, describes an act of tactical resistance to dominant power structures: it means to invert or, at least, interrupt the value system that privileges certain language rules, technological imperatives, cultural spaces and objects, and master narratives. As vernacular theory and practice, hip-hop flips the script on disability, transforming a physical condition and social stigma into a desirable aesthetic value.

The history of hip-hop provides numerous analogous instances of flippin' the script. In 1988, recording duo Eric B. and Rakim released "Follow the Leader," an Afrofuturistic riff on the Pied Piper of Hamelin legend. The song includes Rakim's oft-quoted couplet, "I can take a phrase that's rarely heard, flip it, / Now it's a daily word." Rakim's punning turn of phrase establishes the relationship between language, style, and currency. More importantly, it speaks to the influence of hip-hop slang on contemporary popular culture: it's ubiquitous— from the playground to the classroom, from the stoop to the White House. Hip-hop culture's influence on the English language is more formally recognized through governing bodies like the editorial board of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). In recent years, the OED has made headlines by including "crunk," "bling," "jiggy," "dope," "phat," and "balla." Rappers have used these words and invested them with hip-hop-specific meanings.

Hip-hop culture also adopts and transforms instruments of new media. Consider the record player. As Jonathan Sterne explains,

The turntable is a classic case of people making a 'virtue' of necessity … the lower-class (and mostly non-white) 'turntablists' convert a playback medium into a musical instrument in a world where musical instruments were very hard to acquire. ("Bourdieu, Technique, and Technology" 373)

Hip-hop flips the script on the technological and commercial imperatives of record player manufacturers. Through trial and error, early hip-hop deejays— Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Grand Wizzard Theodore— developed a musical aesthetic with a repertoire of techniques such as the break-beat, the scratch, the crossfade, the backspin, and clock theory.4 Since the mid 1980s, turntable manufacturers have worked with deejays to "co-create" products that meet their changing artistic interests and formal demands. The more recent relationship between rappers, Auto-Tune, and Antares likewise illustrates how "[technologies] cannot come into existence to simply fill a pre-existing role"— and this has consequences, especially, for the rapping voice (Sterne, "Bourdieu, Technique, and Technology" 373).

Antares created Auto-Tune software to correct "pitch problems in vocals and other instruments" during studio performances, concert performances, and post-production ("History" par. 3). Auto-Tune also includes a throat modeling feature, in which any one of the throat's five constitutive features may be reshaped, changing the vocal apparatus and, by extension, the sound iconicity of the voice. Contemporary hip-hop artists (e.g., Kanye West, Lil' Wayne, and T-Pain, among many others) apply Auto-Tune to the voice— but not for the purposes of pitch correction. Using the device's in-built phaser effect, these artists generate vocals that modulate in and out of tune, in waves, tapping into quarter- and semi-tones. The resultant timbral quality is typically described as robotic and synthetic, or, as Alexander Weheliye puts it, "post-human" (22). The software is used by hip-hop artists to disable the vocal apparatus and, thus, to denaturalize the voice.

Hip-hop culture reterritorializes institutional spaces, too. Promotional flyers for early hip-hop events in the South Bronx reveal how students transformed public school gymnasiums into performance venues.5 The symbolic disciplinary power of the school during the day is countered by personalized expression at night. Official knowledge in the form of core curriculum is countered with embodied, affective knowledge communicated through music, dance, graffiti, and fashion. Moreover, in an instance of nimble improvisation, the promotional flyers cleverly incorporate school yearbook photos to put a face to the performer's stage name. The flyers demonstrate how early hip-hop performers infused the school with local artistic pride— independent of authorized educational forms (class timetables, lectures, tests) and authorities (teachers, principals, school board administrators).

Finally, hip-hop culture flips the script on strategies of representation, too. Rappers provide alternative or "minority" perspectives on significant political events, historical figures, and cultural objects and symbols.6 So, for example, Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" interrogates representations of popular history that advocate exclusively for white cultural heroes:

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Motherfuck him and John Wayne
Cuz I'm Black and I'm proud
I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped
Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps

Chuck D. proposes a new black hero rescued from the sediment of popular culture. In response to (white) visuals, Chuck D. presents (black) audio: "the sounds" of James Brown's "funky drummer," designed to generate racial pride and to inspire social change. Thus, Chuck D. situates his listener at what Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman calls "the sonic color-line … a socially constructed boundary where racial difference is produced, coded, and policed through the ear" (par. 1). And Chuck D.'s witty rhyme, "amped" and "stamps," highlights the competition between audio and visual epistemologies.7

The foregoing genealogy of hip-hop's flip the script aesthetic and ethic is meant to situate hip-hop in unique relation to disability as a practice and Disability Studies as a field. Hip-hop artists emphasize that cultural meanings, norms, and values— including (but not limited to) ableism— are open to social agents and processes that stage "the intersection of different 'accentings' in the same discursive terrain" (Hall 298). But to quote Tricia Rose, "Without historical contextualization, aesthetics are naturalized, and cultural practices are made to appear essential to a given group of people. On the other hand, without aesthetic considerations, Black cultural practices are reduced to extensions of socialhistorical circumstances" ("Black Text/Black Context" 223). Disability is a key "vanishing mediator" between the hip-hop aesthetic and its social-historical context (Jameson 26). This essay aims to make disability present and audible as a mediating practice; and it proposes that hip-hop's self-conscious acts of transvaluation challenge the discursive dominance of ableism.8

*

Every hip-hop MC possesses a unique vocal apparatus: oral, nasal, pharyngeal, and laryngeal cavities, as well as the lungs, sternum, and stomach muscles.9 The vocal apparatus calls and responds to the rest of the body and its constantly changing dispositions and to contexts of production. The vocal apparatus is involved in recursive involutions of physical and existential labor: "To speak is to perform work, sometimes, as any actor, teacher, or preacher knows, very arduous work indeed. The work has the voice, or actions of voice, as its product and process; giving voice is the process which simultaneously produces articulate sound, and produces myself, as a self-producing being" (Connor 3). The MC expands or contracts the mouth cavity to control attack. He projects from the diaphragm for more volume. The hip-hop MC inhales and exhales, using his breath to delimit the length of prosodic units. He flexes the tongue to affect dialect, and he uses the throat to add vibrato. Through the use of what Marcel Mauss calls "body techniques" (104-5), the MC's physis is expended, expanded, and— sometimes— even disabled for the purposes of art and commerce.10

Shouting, for instance, places "accute stress" on any voice (Stras 173). Public Enemy's Chuck D. developed his particularly aggressive shouting style of rapping through his experience in the Long Island club and party circuit of the early 1980s, when he was an undergraduate student at Adelphi University:

I had the strongest voice of anybody around me and that was key, because most sound systems were cheap. You had to be able to cut across a cheap system. Guys like DJ Hollywood and Melle Mel had no problems with something like that… . Me and Flavor was [sic] blessed with having voices on two different ends of the spectrum, and they could both cut across any live situation very easily. (Coleman 349)

Acoustic design— or lack thereof— shapes Chuck D.'s identifiable vocal style and skill, and his ability to overcome otherwise disabling conditions situates him in a prestigious hip-hop genealogy a la KRS-One's "Criminal Minded." His insistence on the sprezzatura ease with which he is heard against all spatial and technological odds is a source of masculine pride, and it implies that less successful rappers are rendered— and gendered— silent and weak. This anecdote is useful for two reasons. First, it reveals how conceiving of disability as a desirable practice in hip-hop culture means accepting its simultaneously positive and negative presences. Second, it historicizes Chuck D.'s voice: only later in the decade, as a member of Public Enemy and in the context of that group's militant iconography, is Chuck D.'s shouting style transformed into a politicized instrument of anger and figured as an ideological critique of R&B singers who use their voices to sing "senseless songs to the mindless" (Public Enemy, "Caught, Can I Get a Witness?").

Like Chuck D., rappers Percee P. and Big Pun similarly test, exceed, and valorize the voice's limits. In 1992, Percee P. released the single "Lung Collapsing Lyrics." As his song title suggests, Percee P. purposely exposes the vocal apparatus to risk and, ultimately, system failure:

I'm the capital P-E-R-C double E dash P P dash double E-C-R-E-P in me
Shots in top lyrical fitness that's why you bit this
Get this, I got a witness and I won't quit this
And flip flop, get dropped, shit I'm in tip-top shape
Lyrics escape, can't even catch him with tape
I cold grip the mic, strike then rip his life
My raps dilapidate adversaries with kryptonite
Hit you with a verse, make you disperse but first
Call up a hearse cuz Perc' leave you worse than this
Brain cells shatter, MCs scatter
I splatter them all with something that ain't even matter

Percee P.'s high-speed vocal delivery matters more than the lyrical content. Extended periods of uninterrupted breath units signify the dialectic between athletic exceptionalism ("tip top shape" and "lyrical fitness") and disability ("lung[s] collapsing"). At the same time, Percee P. argues for the inimitability of his vocal style. If another hip-hop MC should try to "bit[e]" his vocals (i.e., to steal in hip-hop parlance), that MC risks the health of his "lungs" ("My raps dilapidate adversaries with kryptonite"). While Percee P's disabling condition remains in the realm of metaphor, the late Big Pun's does not, unfortunately. Big Pun struggled with obesity throughout his life. When he died in 1999, while recording his second album, Yeeeah Baby, he was close to 700 pounds. At that weight, even everyday activities (e.g., walking and talking) are physically exhausting— to say nothing of rapping. Thus, his signature, virtuoso vocal delivery, which relied on uninterrupted breath units extended over multiple musical bars, sounds out a Freudian death-drive by purposefully placing his body under conditions of duress.

Disability is a desirable vocal practice in hip-hop, then, only to the extent that it doesn't eventually result in total vocal failure or death. Rappers Fat Joe, Raekwon, Guru, and Coolio, for example, have voices distinguished by aspirated timbre connected to chronic asthmatic conditions. Or, consider Erick Sermon of the popular late 80s group EPMD. He began to rap in high school and developed what he calls a "slow" vocal style (Coleman 190). He performed slowly in order to better control and hide the conspicuousness of his lisp. Other rappers celebrate and accentuate the lisp: Biz Markie, Kool G. Rap, The Notorious B.I.G., Cappadona, Cormega, Mos Def, and R.A. the Rugged Man. In fact, R.A. the Rugged Man views his lisp as an inheritance from his father, creating a special bond across generations; it is the auditory trace of the Vietnam War's violence.11 Ghostface Killah and Phife Dawg (of Tribe Called Quest) suffer from diabetes: their dietary restrictions alter the body's processes. Grillz— designer gold teeth— change the physical make-up of the mouth cavity and its resonance, as the vocal iconicities of Ol' Dirty Bastard and Lil' Wayne indicate. But perhaps the most extreme medical case is that of MF Grimm, shot multiple times in 1994 and paralyzed: "He couldn't see, hear, or talk properly … larynx damage affects his speech to this day" (Westhoff par. 2). More recently, Eminem revealed that he had to relearn how to rap after kicking prescription drugs: "I actually had to learn how to say my lyrics again— how to phrase them, make them flow, how to use force so they sounded like I meant them. Rapping wasn't like riding a bike. It was [as much] physical as mental. I was relearning basic motor skills" (Kaufman par. 3).

In 2000, 50 Cent was (in)famously shot nine times in front of his grandmother's house in South Jamaica, Queens. One bullet entered his left cheek, resulting in the loss of a wisdom tooth and a disfigured tongue. The event changed his mouth cavity and, by extension, his vocal style. If we compare a pre-shooting track like "The Hit" with a post-shooting track like "What Up, Gangsta?", we hear "a difference"— but not "a deficit," to borrow from Joseph N. Strauss (7). In the former, 50 Cent has a penchant for bursts of well-articulated speed rap. His words and phrases are clearly defined units. In the latter, 50 Cent possesses a conspicuous slur or drawl. The start and end of words and phrases are unclear. Thus, many early listeners mistakenly assumed he was a Southern rapper, a confusion of significance in hip-hop, where identity and geography are inextricable, the sources of topophilia and, sometimes, topophobia (Forman 78). Temporally, his post-shooting elocution is slightly behind the beat, as compared to the more mechanically precise performances from earlier in his career. Despite the gravity of the event, 50 Cent manages to mine what Ralph Ellison calls the "near tragic, near comic lyricism" of the blues from his experience (78): "I've been shot nine times … that's why I walk funny / Hit in the jaw once, why I talk funny" ("Fuck You"). Moreover, 50 Cent adduces a lesson of perseverance from it: "a few words for any nigga that get hit the fuck up / My advice if you get shot down, is get the fuck up" ("Fuck You").

In October 2002, as Kanye West prepared his debut album, The College Dropout, he was involved in a serious car accident. His jaw was broken in three places. Adding insult to injury, the hospital staff at Cedar Sinai in Los Angeles wired his jaw incorrectly, forcing doctors "to break it again and put it in the right place" (Reid par. 12).

I had nasal fractures— I'd be talking to people and my nose would start bleeding. Even to this day, I could start choking because spit will go down the wrong path. That whole area is messed up. But right now I'm healing, I'm just learning how to pronounce words like, "What's up" with the 't' and the 's' together without it being slurred, so I can rap again. (Reid par. 5)

West decided to allow listeners access to his rehabilitation process: only two weeks after the accident, with his jaw still wired and his face significantly swollen, he composed and recorded "Through the Wire." Listening to the track, one notes a lack of expressive range in terms of pitch, articulation, accent, and speed. West even acknowledges and apologizes for the disabled performance:

I really apologize how I sound right now man
This ain't fair at all man
They got my mouth wired shut
...
I had reconstructive surgery on my jaw
I looked in the mirror, half of my jaw was in the back of my mouth

However, like 50 Cent, Kanye manages to adduce some humor from the situation: "I drink a Boost for breakfast, an Ensure for dizzert / Somebody ordered pancakes, I just sip the sizzurp." He flips the script on pain, even imbuing his voice with metaphysical overtones: "I turned tragedy to triumph / Make music that's fire, spit my soul through the wire." West and 50 Cent both illustrate how vocal performance helps control how the representation and meaning(s) of disability circulate.

*

Between the final recorded product and the listener's ear, there exists a whole world— the recording studio. Recording studios are technological and social spaces that shape the sound iconicity of the voice. In the case of the former, gewgaws and gadgets, such as the aforementioned Auto-Tune, fill the studio with aesthetic, expressive, and rhetorical potentiality. A high signal-to-noise ratio foregrounds a rapper's voice in the mix. Compression ensures clarity and balance from a line's start to finish. Engineers minimize or maximize the smack of lips. They can adjust speeds, too. Multitracking enables vocal layering. Pitch shifting allows for rappers to create multiple dramatic personae. Echo and reverb create the illusion of space. As producer for the Wu-Tang Clan's Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, the RZA recalls how "each Wu-Tang MC had their own compressor set to a certain setting. I had nine compressors, each on a setting. So whoever came over, they could just grab a mic and rip it. That's why on the earlier music of Wu-Tang, everybody sounds like themselves— they're more recognizable" (RZA 208). Studio technology shapes and shades vocal contours, just as camera type, lens, aperture size, and shutter speed shape and shade a photograph. The concept of an unmediated or pure voice is only an illusion of ableist ideology.

The recording studio is where friendships are made (and broken) and ideas and feelings are shared (and rejected). In The Audible Past, Jonathan Sterne points out that recording studios have always been characterized by an "irreducible humanity" (236). They are eminently social spaces. Like a club or block party from hip-hop's early days of the 1970s, a studio has an active audience, which doubles as collaborators: childhood friends, family, lovers, crews, label mates, producers, engineers, executives, A&R reps, journalists, filmmakers, athletes, and sycophants are watching and listening. Record executive Dante Ross recalls the social atmosphere that accompanied the making of De La Soul's 3 Feet High & Rising:

[it] was a magical time… . The list of people who came by the studio when they were making tracks was insane. Biz Markie, the Beatnuts, Jungle Brothers, Ultramagnetic, even Melle Mel. Hip-hop was a smaller, tighter community back then, everybody didn't know everything yet. I can't remember one iota of bad vibes. (Coleman 149)

The performers and audience acquire, share, and refine tacit knowledge about what works and what doesn't, aesthetically-speaking. In addition, as with much postmodern art, the distinction between performer and audience is blurred amid the constant exchange of "vibes" between intimate bodies.

An informed studio audience disables "those habits and practices of thinking and making" (Jarvis 932) to which a performer is predisposed to return— his vocal habitus. In this sense, disability as a practice is, in part, desirable because it is connected with what the Russian Formalists called ostranenie [defamiliarization].12 For example, East Los Angeles group Cypress Hill's B-Real possesses one of hip-hop's most iconic voices: it is high-pitched and nasal, complemented by excessive staccato and off-beat accentuation. B-Real's voice signifies a drug-altered state and his cultural heritage: his group's iconography draws heavily on West Coat cannabis and Latino cultures, respectively. But B-Real's rapped voice is not his natural voice: "The nasal style I have was just something that I developed. My more natural style of rapping wasn't so pleasing to those guys' ears [emphasis added], so they wanted me to try something different, and it just stuck" (Coleman 123). Through negotiation with the tastes of Cypress Hill's other group members, Sen-Dogg and DJ Muggs, B-Real is asked to throw his voice out and he complies, recreating his sense of self and artistic identity along the way.

The studio is also the site of what Daniel Tiffany refers to as "infidel poetics": it houses "the hermetic yet expressive communities, certain social underworlds, within the global fabric" (11). Inevitably, the indulgences of hip-hop's street, house, and club party ethos are also transposed into the studio underworld. Alcohol and narcotics circulate and are consumed. When consumed, alcohol and narcotics have physiological and aesthetic consequences. Thus, the playful, otiose, and even wasteful voices heard on a given record are anything but sonic signs of aural or moral fidelity. What is heard are the voicings of altered states and of alterity, which "defy the seemingly inexorable logic of transparency and continuity" as well as the logic of ableism (Tiffany 12).

For example, in 1985, Philadelphia-based rapper Schoolly D. went into a classical music studio to record tracks the single "P.S.K. What Does It Mean?"— one of the earliest gangsta rap recordings. Schoolly D. flipped the script on the prestige, aura, and protocols associated with a "classical music" studio:

One other thing with the recording back in those days is that we was hiiiiiigh. It was like— puff puff— more reverb! More reverb! … We stayed at that studio working and smoking all night, until like six in the morning, and when I woke up at one or two the next day I played it and was like, "What the fuck is this?" But I played it for the crew and they went ballistic. It was instant. (Coleman 408)

According to Fredro of the rap group Onyx, that group's debut album, Bacdafuckup, was composed and recorded with members "on LSD the whole time, straight up. We was dropping papers, taking meth tabs, during that whole album. That's just the creative side of making music" (Coleman 296). Fredro's comments help explain why the vocals on the album's hit single and the group's most famous song, "Slam," sound like a grab-bag of guttural screams and barks. Similarly, Shock G, of Digital Underground, admits that that group's 1990 concept album, Sex Packets, was recorded under the influence: "There are a lot of shrooms and Ecstasy that went into some of the thinking on that album, too. I even wrote some of that stuff on these mescaline 'yellow giggle drops'" (Coleman 181). More recently, in a 2009 New Yorker profile of Daniel Dumile/MF Doom, journalist Ta-Neheshi Coates notes how Dumile's recording process involves "beer" and "Grey Goose vodka," the consumption of which helps Dumile assume his persona of MF Doom (par. 29).

But the case of Digital Underground is especially interesting because the disabled voice is explicitly connected to disabled identity. Sex Packets yielded a smash hit single called "The Humpty Dance." That single featured the group's newest, most popular, and most recognizable member: Humpty Hump. Humpty Hump was an act of "hip-hop ventriloquism" (Coleman 183). Shock G generated Humpty Hump's character and voice by putting on a prosthetic Groucho Marx nose and oversized glasses. The prosthetic pinched Shock G's nose, cutting its airflow. This created his nasal-sounding voice. In addition, like Daniel Dumile/MF Doom, Shock G needed to be intoxicated in order to successfully embody the "Humpty Hump" character. As Digital Underground group member Money B recalls,

The demo of it was really hot, and we kept trying to recreate it but just couldn't do it… . Fuze and Shock were fucking around with the song, and they were like: "What's missing?" And I figured it out. It was Hennessy! So I went to the store, got some Hennessy, got Shock drunk, and then Humpty came right out, just like magic. (Coleman 184)

Subsequently, Shock G. tried to have people believe that he and Humpty were different people through paratextual devices. He credited Humpty Hump as a group member on the album's liner notes, for example. He developed and disseminated a back-story, too: "I started the myth of Humpty during a college radio interview. I said that he was my brother from Tampa, an ex-lounge singer who got in a grease accident in the kitchen. He stood as a hero for all handicapped people around the world, because you can overcome anything" (Coleman 183; emphasis added).

The character of Humpty Hump lacks any sort of hip-hop fashion sense. He typically wears a plaid dinner jacket and a white, Daniel Boone-like hat. He's "ugly," with a disproportionately large nose. He describes himself alternately as "skinny," a "fool," a "freak," and a "drunk." Humpty Hump's look has corollaries in his behavior and language: he revels in having sex in a Burger King bathroom or engaging in juvenile antics such as grabbing girls "in the biscuits." His language veers into nonsense: "I get stupid, I shoot an arrow like Cupid / I use a word that don't mean nothin', like looptid." Even the eponymous "Humpty Dance" is contrary to the physical dexterity and athleticism upon which much hip-hop dance typically depends:

It's supposed to look like a fit or a convulsion
Anyone can play this game
This is my dance, y'all, Humpty Hump's my name
No two people will do it the same
Ya got it down when ya appear to be in pain

As a supplement to his slurred, nasal vocals, Humpty Hump's disabled dance style ("crazy wack funky") assumes value as a symbol of democracy in action— a celebration of the relationship between the one and the many ("Anyone can play this game … / No two people will do it the same"). And in rendering "pain" as foundational to democracy, Humpty Hump formalizes disability as a constitutive force within the body politic— rather than external or detrimental to it.

*

In describing disability as a desirable practice within hip-hop music and culture, my intention is not to treat in a sentimental or cavalier manner what are most certainly very difficult emotional, physical, and economic realities of hip-hop performers who live with disabilities; nor do I wish to downplay the racial, legal, and political contexts that certainly exacerbate said difficulties. At the same time, however, by casting disability as a desirable practice, I do wish to invest hip-hop performers with a sense of agency and invention when it comes to vocal styles rather than "reducing" vocal styles to a racially-informed "pathology, compensatory behavior, or creative 'coping mechanisms'," as Robin D.G. Kelley laments is too often the case in discussions of rap music and hip-hop culture (17). In his study Blackness and Value, Lindon Barrett observes that the "singing voice" is "the primary means by which African Americans may exchange an expended, valueless self in the New World for a productive, recognized self. It provides one important means of formalizing and celebrating an existence otherwise proposed as negative and negligible" (57). Disability Studies provides a useful critical lens that stresses those material and political values of vocal performances suggested by Barrett. Disability Studies prompts a methodological shift away from the "hermeneutic level of statement" (Brennan 672), which emphasizes hip-hop's lyrical content, exclusively, thus exposing it to the discourse of moral panic and conservative attack. When voice is rendered audible and particular, and when it is treated as a process as opposed to an object, it is more positively recognizable as the means by which hip-hop artists imagine alternative ways of occupying and interpreting the world they live in, of sounding out and sounding off. The voice is where the struggle over authenticity, originality, and real-ness— signs of cultural and economic capital in the field of hip-hop— plays out.

On his 2006 recording "Hip-Hop is Dead," the rapper Nas quipped, "Most intellectuals will only half listen" and, therefore most intellectuals only half understand. But close listening and the dream of total understanding means extending the critical discourse even beyond formal taxonomies of pitch, register, tempo, and timbre (though such taxonomies are very useful) and attending to vocal provenance, especially the disabled body and disabling recording practices, technologies, and social relations. Otherwise, if we follow Nas's deathly conceit to its logical conclusion, we risk transforming the music and culture into a graveyard of inaudible corpses.

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Endnotes

  1. In this essay, I use the terms hip-hop and rap. The two terms have complex histories and are not always synonymous. Lovebug Starski, for example, coins the neologism hip-hop in the mid 1970s while living and performing in the South Bronx. Rap, on the other hand, is a term with a long and rich history in the African-American expressive tradition, originally referring to "romantic talk from a black man to a black woman for the purposes of winning her emotional and sexual affection" (Smitherman 69). Some performers and listeners use hip-hop and rap to communicate divergent values: the former embodies an original or pure spirit/aesthetic and celebrates grassroots, community-oriented political action; the latter embodies culture industry imperatives and celebrates the logic of "C.R.E.A.M." (Cash Rules Everything Around Me). Rap is the most popular form of hip-hop performance. I will use hip-hop to refer, broadly, to a cultural field that involves multiple artistic practices, including— but not exclusive to— rap; and I will use rap to refer to a genre of music (i.e. rap music, which begins in 1979 with the release of Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight") and a performance style (i.e. rapping) located somewhere between everyday speech and song.
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  2. See Tobin Siebers's Disability Aesthetics for in-depth discussion of disability's centrality to the making of modern art.
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  3. See Houston A. Baker's Blues, Ideology, and African-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. Both studies consider how African American literary and cultural production depends upon the vitality of the vernacular. My thinking on the vernacular is indebted to both scholars.
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  4. See Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop and Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton's Last Night a DJ Saved My Life for excellent descriptions of early DJ culture.
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  5. Cornell University's Hip-Hop Collection is home to the largest collection of promotional flyers and posters. A significant portion of these materials are now available as jpegs online via the Collection's website (Reagan, "Hip-Hop Party and Event Flyers").
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  6. As Tricia Rose writes, the "unofficial truths" expressed by rappers "produce communal bases of knowledge about social conditions, communal interpretations of them and quest often serve as the cultural glue that fosters communal resistance" (Black Noise 100). Like Rose, Gwendolyn Pough qua Habermas imagines hip-hop as a "counter-public sphere": "[hip-hop artists] disrupt their way into and make themselves visible in the public sphere with the goal of not only speaking for disenfranchised Black people but also claiming both a voice and a living for themselves in a society bereft of opportunity for them" (27).
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  7. Ultimately, Chuck D.'s lyrics proved prophetic: on 8 January 1993, the United States Postal Service released its commemorative Elvis Presley stamp. There is, as of yet, no commemorative James Brown stamp.
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  8. As Moya Bailey notes, in her essay "'The Illest': Disability as Metaphor in Hip-Hop Music," "In the liminal spaces of hip hop the reappropriation of ableist language can mark a new way of using words that departs from generally accepted disparaging connotations" (142). Though very interesting and an important contribution to the larger discussion of hip-hop and disability, the purview of Bailey's essay is limited to metaphors of disability. She does not take up my specific concerns with the material relationship between disability, performance, and aesthetics.
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  9. MC is a term in hip-hop used to refer, specifically, to the rapping artist.
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  10. Mauss defines "body techniques" like so: "The body is man's first and most natural instrument. Or more accurately, not to speak of instruments, man's first and most natural technical object, and at the same time technical means, is his body. . . . The constant adaptation to a physical, mechanical or chemical aim (e.g., when we drink) is pursued in a series of assembled actions, and assembled for the individual not by himself alone but by all his education, by the whole society to which he belongs, in the place he occupies in it" (104-5).
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  11. C.f., R.A. the Rugged Man's verse on Jedi Mind Tricks's "Uncommon Valor."
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  12. See Shklovsky's "Art as Technique."
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Copyright (c) 2015 Alex S. Porco



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