B-Sides: Extra Classic and the Vampire Weekend Theory of Appropriation
So it goes like this: "[your favorite music blogger]: Readers, please check out Band A. Band A hails from Culture A (represent!) but sounds exactly like underrepresented Culture B. Like, can you believe your ears, doesn't it sound like Band A just sounds like all of these bands from Culture B that work hard and get little recognition in our giant Culture A?" This week it's time to sit down and talk about Extra Classic, a band from San Francisco, California; their love of Jamaican music; and what I'm going to deem the Vampire Weekend model of cultural appropriation.
Extra Classic, composed of former members of The Papercuts, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, and the Anniversary (among others), writes music that draws on all of the hallmarks of Jamaican dub and reggae. Hazy production, cooing vocals, skanking guitars and percolating bass abound all over the record, sounding like they were lifted straight from a Studio One plate. But wait, doesn't someone else play Jamaican dub music real well? Oh, that's right, Jamaican dub musicians do. They've been doing it for a while.
Now, I need to lay out a few things. I'm not trying to essentialize musical styles. Jamaicans aren't bound to (and don't only) play dub, and San Franciscans aren't meant to play sweater indie. But we have to keep in mind the power dynamic in this exchange: Extra Classic's record sounds like it was ripped straight from an incredibly vibrant music scene that rose above its economic circumstances, and it threatens to dilute the political and cultural significance of dub and reggae for a new generation of listeners.
Dub reggae functioned in Jamaica much the same way as folk protest music (think Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez) did in the United States. Junior Murvin sang "Police and Thieves" as a call to peace, responding to the bloodshed in Jamaica in the early '70s. Roots reggae, sung by the likes of Burning Spear and Bob Marley, sprang from the experiences of Jamaica's lower class. So when I hear bands like Extra Classic speaking about their "dub" and "reggae" influences, it's troubling to think of how a vibrant political platform is being co-opted.
Not that this is anything new, but Extra Classic appears to follow a recent trend of bands using their street cred to justify their cultural appropriation, something that I call the Vampire Weekend model. Vampire Weekend caught heaps of flak for their brand of Soweto beats with limp, cryptic commentary on the differing experiences of South African and Manhattan teenagers. Reacting to criticisms of the band's East Coast/Ivy League snob reputation, singer Ezra Koenig replied, "My dad grew up in a working-class Jewish neighborhood... and I got a scholarship from my dad's union to go to college. I went there to get an education, not as an extension of privilege." But he can't deny the cultural capital that comes from being a white, male, Western musician.
So this leads me back to Extra Classic. Since they're cool, they rip the right reference points and they prize sacred "analog" recording techniques (sounds great in .mp3!) they get a free pass in the blogosphere. But re-situating dub reggae through white American musicians could lead people to forget dub's political, radical past. The Clash, Eric Clapton, and a whole host of Western artists have benefited from the wholesale appropriation of dub music. Scores of black artists made their music in direct response to oppression, so it's uncomfortable to hear white artists parrot their riffs and styles to crowds who might be unaware of its origin.
I don't dislike Extra Classic. I just can't stand seeing blogs write about music that sounds "like a band from Jamaica" without recognizing the tricky territory that comes with borrowing across cultures. So, please, if you listen to Extra Classic, don't deny the legacy that they draw on. Extra Classic obviously has a lot of love for their predecessors, so why not find out what that's all about? Classics like Toots & the Maytals, Lee Scratch Perry, and the Abyssinians still tour every once in a while! For your own judgment, and possibly for your listening pleasure, here's the leadoff track from Extra Classic's debut album, Your Light Like White Lightning, Your Light Like a Laser Beam.
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