In 'Uproot,' A DJ Traces Modern Music's Tangled Family Tree
Jace Clayton circles the globe looking for new sounds, from home studios in Morocco to teen parties in Mexico. Performing as DJ /rupture, he incorporates them into his work — and in his travels, he's found that digital technology has profoundly changed how music is produced, even in the most unlikely places.
That's the subject of his new book, Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture. He joined NPR's Audie Cornish to talk about it; hear the radio version at the audio link, and read an edited version below.
Audie Cornish: There is no way to talk about modern music without talking about Auto-Tune. You trace the journey of that software, beginning as a studio tool for engineers to bend bad notes, to the ubiquitous sound on pop radio today. Things really start in 1999 with Cher's "Believe"; what happened after that?
It created a new sound. The way it works is it goes in there and actually alters the waveforms of your voice. So it's this very intimate and strange modulation with technology. And it excites the ears in a way that few other things do.
And it becomes essentially a cosmetic tool, as people know — almost a joke, in the U.S. But you found it adopted in another scene: a Berber community in Morocco. And this is a community that is actually known for being somewhat isolated culturally. How did they get Auto-Tune? And what was their music tradition before?
The closest I found to an origin story is that a popular French film in 2000, 2001, had a scene in which an Arabic woman is in a cafe, and then they play a song and that song has Auto-Tune. People were watching this movie, and that was like, "Wow" — that sort of set the fire there.
One of the reasons why I'm so interested in Auto-Tune is that it wasn't physical: It was first distributed as software. And what that means for producers in far-flung locations is that you can buy it online; you can find a cracked copy, which was very likely the case there. It's no longer this situation where distribution is an issue.
How did seeing how it's used in these other communities make you feel different about it?
It really opened me up to the way in which even the sort of Western, widespread global technology, it's never totalizing. It's not one-size-fits-all, it's not just like pouring ketchup on everything on the dinner plate. People are listening to Auto-Tune differently in different countries, and in different regions within the countries.
You write about another musical journey in northern Mexico, the town of Monterrey, where you encountered a music called tribal. Where did this come from?
It is young Mexican kids using electronic music software and laptops to make this music, but it draws on their very specific location. So on the one hand, they're listening to their parents' and older siblings' sort of rodeo music, different types of Mexican country music and ballads, and that is present, structurally, as an influence. But then, somehow, psychedelic Israeli techno got really big in the rave scene in north Mexico. They call it "psycho" there; that's how it translates. But that is what these kids would go to and hear when they're out at the nightclubs, and all those influences are being shaken up and thrown out in this music called tribal guarachero. They're also thinking back to the indigenous past of Mexico and kind of reimagining that — so there's this whole sort of Aztec imaginary with jungle sounds and sampling of pre-Hispanic instrumentation.
Kind of imagining this history, and creating a call and response to it.
Exactly. And so I was like, this is what happens when the ideas of musical lineage — this begat that, begat that — are no longer that relevant in this type of very young, loop-based music.
In the past, people have talked about artists who "lifted" from communities that they encountered, or people will say, "Well, this person actually stole this sound from X, Y and Z." But you even ask, how do you share a music scene without ripping out its heart?
That's a key question, precisely because it's so easy for someone a thousand miles away from Monterrey to do a quick search and say, "Oh, I can make that." And you sort of mimic the music structurally, but with no knowledge of all the various conditions that gave rise to it.
Were there any examples from the book that did cross that line?
[Laughs] Yeah. I'm mostly talking about about moments of creation, but I do have a few moments where I dip into, like, "Let's look at the music industry." For example, there's a chapter on what I call "World Music 2.0," where I discuss how this whole term of "world music" was an industry phrase. It came out of a meeting with record label executives in 1987 in London. They were saying, "Paul Simon's Graceland was a huge it. There's a niche, but how can we market it? Should we call it "hot"? Should we call it "tropical"? And in the end, they went for world music. That's how that happened; the notes are online. It's totally fascinating to see.
How have you come to think of the term "world music" today?
When I think of world music, it's that people all over the world now have these inexpensive digital tools, and they're using those to express themselves musically and sort of connect with the world, and fold in all these influences in a way that was never before possible.