A Performative Survey of Call & Response in Rap

Posted on May 28, 2013 by


I was literally holding the fence when it happened. The woman came struggling and shrieking as a security man shoved her, scooting her resistant legs really, across the concrete floor; then he opened the gate right next to me and threw her out. The fence was in fact only a waist-high railing around the open-air patio at the front of the venue, an area separated from the dancefloor and the stage beyond that by raised hangar doors—meaning separated by nothing—and distinct chiefly because you could smoke there. So the woman remained in full view of us and everyone in the club, and within range of the music, of the ongoing show, forcibly excluded yet directly in front of us, only now on the sidewalk, when she began stripping off her clothes and made a show of herself.

At first she screamed that she would not leave without her shoes. But when it was pointed out that no one had her shoes, that one slipper had merely slipped off her toes in the fuss and was still beneath her bare foot, only then did she advance the rest of her argument. She undressed herself from top to bottom (& though the doorman and security protested & told her to keep her clothes on, she was now outside the barrier, just a person on the street, & not anymore their problem), and here she hollered, totally naked:

THEY were rapping about WHORES snorting COCAINE off their PENISES! And I’M THE PROBLEM??

And she continued on like this, even, within a sudden rush of bodies round the gate, the subcrowd flashing camera phones to make pictures and video of the nude commotion, managing to attract one or two interviewers who seemed, in full earnestness, to want to know more about her critique.

But I can’t tell you about these conversations, because I exited the situation about then. My date wanted nothing whatever to do with being photographed in such a scene, and however curious about this new spectacle I was myself already over the performance on stage.

This was why I stood next to the gate smoking a cigaret. I had half a mind on my bicycle, which I had left hanging unlocked on the same fence, on the streetside—this naked stranger’s side, now—because I lost my lock in drunken South by Southwest nonsense the night before, and was annoyed with myself for this reason. But I was also annoyed with Mannie Fresh, who wouldn’t stop piercing his own groove with an arrhythmic “AUSTIN MAKE SOME NOIIIISE!!!

So this is not an essay about the uses or responsibilities of gender dynamics within hip hop performance, at least until we intersect it briefly again when I get to Lil Wayne. I don’t know whether the female stranger’s latter protest was any continuation of what got her expelled from the venue in the first place, even though a little later we’re going to ask what if it was. I never heard Mannie Fresh say anything about whores doing coke off his dick, but he might have when I wasn’t listening. And I wasn’t listening because I had stopped dancing or trying to forget worrying about my bike when I got sick of Mannie Fresh’s distracting, repetitive, failing—and ultimately disingenuous—call and response routine.

Now, I get what blood was trying to do. Call and response is a deeply potent and mobilizing form of communication with traditions in gospel music and ancient African spirituality. The point is to ignite activity through involvement, as Craig Werner puts it in A Change is Gonna Come, his analysis of Civil Rights and contemporary black movements expressed through music: “Both in its political contexts and its more strictly musical settings, call and response moves the emphasis from the individual to the group. For African American performance to work, the performer must receive a response, whether the rallying of the beloved community around the women who were redefining everyone as leaders, the chaotic participation of the crowd greeting the landing of George Clinton’s P-Funk mothership, or the intense concentration—punctuated by cries of ‘Yes lord!’ and ‘Tell it!’—that the Washington audience gave Martin and Mahalia.” In the best ways the exchange reflexively feeds energy into the performance, and back.

Instead, Fresh kept dropping his flow mid-rhyme and basically begging for applause. The interruptions made it hard to respond physically, rhythmically. Most of the folks had come to hear Mos Def, the gig’s headliner; many people had already left and the flatness of the small group’s response probably fed back his insecurity. He’d have been better served moving us with expert lyricism, and I became reminded of a story my friend Chris Clayton told me.

When Chris went to see Sage Francis play in Seattle in 2004, Sage Francis had said the most remarkable thing. “If at any point I demand you to throw your hands in the air, you don’t have to do it,” the rapper told the crowd. “You can do whatever the fuck you want. Don’t listen to me.”

It’s a novel offer of self-determination, inverting the old standard. Instead of freeing the audience to contribute with a radical agency, Sage Francis releases them through an anarchic agency to refuse. Why participate in a process that’s grown stale? Chris wrote in his review for a local blog: “Chingy and Nelly would shit themselves if when they yelled ‘Hip’ their audience didn’t respond wit ‘Hop.’”

Of course a rhetorical question doesn’t always need a spoken answer. Around the same time Sage Francis was granting his anti-democratic, anti-conformist pardon, Saul Williams released a track called “African Student Movement” on which he makes repeated requests to “Tell me where my niggas at?”—a quite ordinary roll call—only with the implied response changing shape as the song traverses environments of self-destruction and self-sufficiency, from African origins to white images of Africans. The track never gives voice to a direct answer, but builds Williams a harmonizing chorus of his own voice asking the question. “In its pure form,” says Werner, “call and response can exist only in the interaction between people present with one another in the real world. On record, background singers or choirs stand in for the community in the world. The best gospel records always sound live, because they capture the uncontainable energy unleashed by call and response, even if they were recorded in studios.” But what happens when recorded subversions of call and response make their way into performances before a live audience?

By 2007, Saul Williams recorded The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!, on which he tells us, of his hero/clown/rapper/king, “Sing along when Niggy sings/ Without you he’d be worthless.” And then the hook goes: “When I say Niggy? You say nothing!” On the record, the first two times Williams says “Niggy” get followed by a beat of silence. When the third time brings a voice of answer, “Nothing!” Williams quickly responds back, “Shut up.”

When I saw this performed two years later, few people in the audience had heard the track and it was not clear if Williams’s call was indeed asking for a vocalized “Nothing!” or silence. The confusing result effectively lampooned both the lame formulas with their automatic responses that had become convention in mainstream rap, at once with the weakness of audiences too shy or unmoved or unfamiliar to answer a participatory call.

This can be unnerving when you’re not in on it, but that’s part of the point. Even when its explicit purpose is to include people, to dissolve the divide between active performer and passive listener, call and response’s function is not always so simple. You remember the hook to Outkast’s 1996 “ATLiens”: “Throw your hands in the air/ And wave em like you just don’t care.” The concept comes altogether familiar from any rap show ever, and it’s a direct quote from Pharcyde’s 1993 track “Return of the B-boy”—itself a parodying homage to 1980s tropes from Sugar Hill Gang to Rock Master Scott’s “The Roof is on Fire” to LL Cool J’s “Rock the Bells” (rap music has this other, everlasting internal call-and-response performance: the recursive form of its sampled beats and melodies, “calling back” to earlier music, and the development of threads of referential quotations and “conversations” across records, with MC battles and honorific attributions becoming the dialectic of hip hop tradition). But the second part of the hook, “And if you like fish and grits and all that pimp shit/ Everybody let me hear you say ‘Oh-yay-err!’” draws a sort of velvet rope around who gets to get down with this song: if (and only if?) you like fish and grits, a cuisine native to the South and significant of Atlanta, you can enter into the conversation by calling out syllables bent into a stereotypically black Southern accent (think Tyler Perry’s grandma character saying “Hallelujer!”)

Outkast’s conditional “if” may seem toothless as segregation goes, but consider the awkwardness of a white kid trying to sing along, say, in 1968 with James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” David Foster Wallace points out in Signifying Rappers how hardcore hip hop, with its vocabulary of drug-war street violence and other ghetto signifiers (“pimp shit”), only intensifies that cognitive break for non-black listeners. “Serious rap has, right from the start, presented itself as a Closed Show,” Wallace writes. “No question that serious rap is, and is very self-consciously, music by urban blacks about same to and for same.” Later crossover success of Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below gave the duo a reputation as a pop act accessible to general audiences, but Big Boi and André 3000 have consistently certified Outkast in this same vein of music derived from and directed at the African American community. When Dré rhymes, “Don’t get caught up in appearance/ It’s Outkast, Aquemini, another black experience,” on their third record, he’s throwing back to his verse from “ATLiens” two years earlier, “They alienate us cause we different keep your hands to the sky/ like sounds of blackness cause I practice what I preach ain’t no lie,” which folds into the call and response (“hands to the sky”) routine for the second hook, “Now breaker-breaker 10-4 can I get some reply?” (“Now everybody say throw your hands…”)

“Since rap’s self-defined as by and for a group that We, as post-Reagan white culture, regard as Other, it’s a music out of which we tend automatically to edit troublesome complexities like individual artists’ unique experiences, tastes, beliefs, models, values, and agenda, in order to achieve the wide shallow definition the rubric Representative Voice of Threatening Alien Culture imposes,” Wallace says. “The idiosyncratic, the person-al—rich and eccentric and too complex even to see unless you’re right there up close—are our attributes for Us, not for Aliens, not even Aliens-among-Us.”

So call and response, first a method for expanding volume and spreading opportunity through collective voice, has this secondary, limiting power. It can identify, target or define a special audience within a room of listeners, telegraphing a message directly to them, or broadcast a call welcome or recognizable to a few, like the Bat Signal, to attract only those capable of responding. As the circle of participation grows beyond the edge of the stage or grooves on a record, it sometimes also makes a cutting edge either within or at the boundary of an audience, or carves out new spaces for groups to gather.

Obviously this differentiation need not be racial. Outkast’s shoutouts hang at least as much on being Southern, especially on its 1990s cuts when the commercial game polarized around NYC/LA sewed a complex badge of stubborn pride and defensiveness onto paying attention to somewhere like Atlanta. They more or less created a new market in so doing, and pioneered decentralizing the industry. Saul Williams’s innovation did not stalemate call and response; it was an opening gambit to identify and invite whoever in the room was ready for a more sophisticated bit. He established his rapport with intellectuals at the expense of the predictable. And it’s important, perhaps crucially necessary, that this surgical-strike call and response is not technically exclusionary—no one got thrown out of Saul Williams’s gig for hollering “Nothing!”—and that the two functions, spreading the gospel compared with targeting the initiated, do not operate exclusive of each other.

In fact, quite often those calls go out side by side. Not merely aimed at the narrow group while cloaked in the open-source “Everybody say…,” the reality that its message thrives in information gaps prized open (or in some cases cultural wounds made rawer) among segments of an audience, all of whom are present hoping to belong, helps explain what Wallace calls “rap’s vague threat’s appeal.”

By flipping the traditional arrow of artistic metonym, rap’s pioneers apparently discovered a way to cook political subterfuge into cultural crack. If you don’t know what I mean, let me school you to some ideas. When pop gospel singers in the 1950s wrote about religious yearning and movements of the spirit, they were sometimes alluding to lust and sex. When soul singers in the 60s rhapsodized about love denied or overcoming heartbreak, they were often secretly talking about Civil Rights struggles or political atrocities. Well it turns out not every gun in hip hop is a literal murder weapon, and not every whore means a real woman. (Jay-Z has tried to claim the “bitch” who wasn’t among his “99 Problems” meant the police dog sniffing around his trunk, even though it’s just a line jacked from Ice-T, but it doesn’t matter; Hov did enough to establish the conscience of his song by reminding of racial profiling and more serious troubles all black American males too-frequently have as their problem.) The difference is that where earlier musicians snuck scandalous or potentially incendiary material behind more polite language, rappers tended to go the other way. Of course none of this would be possible without ground broken and gained by those first liberalizing artists. But what you get is rebel music whose subversive art becomes masking its radicalness using more-blatant outrage rather than hiding it within a delicate meaning.

The effect is nearly narcotic. Listeners who aren’t already activated by a coded political or artistic or cultural message still feel privy to a sort of forbidden access thanks to the clandestine nature of certain lyrics. And the attractive dissonance between these realms of encouragement and exclusion draws one deeper and deeper even if it ought to repel. It’s an emotional wind-up. “The unease and ambivalence with which the rare white at the window loves rap renders that love no less love,” Wallace says (even if, 25 years on, that “rare white at the window” is no longer rare—indeed largely populates the clubs and iTunes market), “… like chasing after the girl not despite but because of the fact that she wants no part of you—especially that part?” No wonder probably the most favored reverse-metonym in rap lyrics is the one where the indifferent drug dealer sells his potent rock to the helpless junky. Notwithstanding how some OG MCs fancied themselves strict documentarians of street life, rather than fronting horror writers or fabulists, in almost every case you can substitute for this idiom the self-referencing performer intoxicating an audience with his music without any comprehension lost—those motherfuckers have got you hooked.

That’s why Kanye West, no one’s idea of a gangsta-rapper, can team up with the non-hooligan likes of Talib Kweli and Common for a song called “Get Em High” and be simultaneously understood to ask us “Throw your motherfucking hands” (“Keep em high”) and “If you lose your high then smoke again” and be instructing lesser rappers that their “weak shit” doesn’t “get em high” enough. “Synecdoche’s potency in art,” again according to Wallace, “depends on a community as backdrop and context, audience, and referent: a definable world for the powerful, dual-functioning Part both to belong to and to transcend.” The music is the drug is the weapon is the call.

If this quaquaversal landscape of metaphors seems like an interpretive free-for-all (hey I said it was crack, graduate students), it’s partly because it is rich with loose ends ready for a listener to pick up and sew into new fabrics.

Like a parent doing all the voices in a storybook, the rapper’s soliloquy can shift frames from autobiography to crime fiction to third-person quotation to hallucinated fantasy to sick joke and back to emo confession within a few spare lines. Lauryn Hill reminds us it’s against the laws of physics for two MCs to occupy the same space at the same time, but the principles of call and response say you can always pass the mic. When a rapper breaks character midstream, it generates a kind of unified field theory that fuses these opposing cosmologies. Sometimes the narrator’s “I” and “you” swap places. Sometimes “you” plays an apostrophized enemy; sometimes it’s white America; sometimes a lover. Within this circus of voices and characters, it baffles me how anyone could condemn a rapper’s professed violence (as if Johnny Cash ever actually “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”—not to mention the centuries-old history of bluegrass murder ballads), or for another side to assail him for merely pretending/“fronting” the same violence (as if Tom Cruise were somehow claiming to be a killer by acting as a hitman in a movie). But then again few entertainments have staked so much on a representation of authenticity, and it can get confusing. Scottish avant-gardist Momus captured a contradictory tension in this circuit of realness with 1998’s “MC Escher”: “If we imagine a world where every MC really is badder and fresher/ Than every other, it just gets madder and madder/ One of those rooftop salmon ladders.” Like any poetry, all this can make it hard to discern what’s “meant” or even understand what was given, but unlike most poetry the call and response element in hip hop grants an audience opportunity to shape the narrative along with an interpretation. The rapper is the ultimate rogue narrator, completely divested of final authority but clinging firmly to ownership of the royalties. Eminem gives an astute, if fittingly paradoxical nonsense, account of the situation: “I am whatever you say I am/ If I wasn’t then why would I say I am?”

The more complicated these identity quilts, the more they allow fans’ responses to add interesting embroidery, and vice versa. For example, the poet Jon Sands has a piece called “When I See André 3000 Buying Bananas at Trader Joes.” In the poem, Sands narrates a runin with the rap star at the supermarket: “I say everything you’ve ever done/ has meant so much to me./ He says, I’ve done PCP. I say/ that meant so much to me.” Now, I have no more reason to trust the provenance of this anecdote than I take seriously any cannibalism or baby raping mentioned in Notorious B.I.G.’s “Dead Wrong.” For one thing, I have a hard time believing André Benjamin would shop at Trader Joes; for another, Dré’s on record that he hasn’t used drugs or alcohol of any kind for about 20 years; for a third, we know Sands is a huge André 3000 enthusiast, and this might easily be a slice of fantasy fan fiction. In any event, I expect poetry and song to inhabit the same pocket of theatrical what-if that doesn’t necessarily overlap into factual memoir. But that doesn’t mean we can’t visit that pocket too. Supposing Sands’s encounter did take place, it means André Benjamin has developed a rather nuanced reply of his own to fans’ responses to his character.

I happened to say something markedly similar when I bumped into Dré outside the protests of the 2004 Republican National Convention in Manhattan: “I love everything you do” (“—especially the fashion,” cosigned my friend Paul, with the PS presumably to distance us from ordinary rap nerds); it must be something he hears a lot. Back then he didn’t give so clever a remark; he only explained how he was there filming a documentary about the political process. But whether invented by Sands or crafted by Dré in real life, the new response shifts the conversation from ordinary idolatry between fan and performer to awareness (even wariness) that an artist’s work in the world too transcends the words delivered from the stage. It suggests, like Saul Williams, an audience should consider this global view before informing a response so narrow and automatic. (Sands’s narrator’s answer either persistently ignores this warning or integrates and complicates it like a good improviser/freestylist.)

So now that we’ve seen call and response erasing imaginary borders isolating artists from the community, for encouraging collective contribution or for undermining the contract of this loop; we’ve seen it drawing new dotted lines to lift select communities and crossing over these thresholds by recruiting outsider members to enrich them; we’ve seen it exploding limits of language and identity and again questioning these overloaded constructs; now that we’ve seen these things, how can we respond to the exchange involving Mannie Fresh and his female critic?

Not that the club’s bouncers had any of this in mind when they dragged the girl fussing and fighting out of the venue, of course. If she tried to climb onstage or grab the microphone to voice her complaint (Fresh had already transgressed the boundary of the stage multiple times by entering the crowd), or otherwise interfered with the conduction of the show, they likely had no choice. And it remains possible she was simply a troublemaker removed for other reasons, who cried misogyny afterward as a way to ex post facto swap indignity for indignation. But let’s imagine she was earnestly offended by Mannie Fresh’s material and felt it her duty to speak up against a culture inappropriate with exploitation.

Let’s suppose the woman was there ready to hear some conscious hip hop from Mos Def, who had cut short his own set disgruntled by the place’s shoddy sound setup. Mos Def, performing that night under his Muslim name Yasiin Bey, is the sort of spoken-word poet who once, unasked, answered a call and response battery between Nas and Jay-Z with a devastating parody “The Rape Over,” a syllable-for-syllable dub over Jay’s “Takeover,” scourging various corruptions and compromises in the corporate rap industry. Mos Def was at the time collaborating with Mannie Fresh on an upcoming album and together they previewed a track, released later that month, “Black Jesus,” which has a knocking beat and a steeped gospel influence—including an iterative sample of a black preacher calling “Is you been baptized? Is you been redeemed?” answered by a choir’s “Save me lord!” Say the young woman heard Mos Def’s verse on that song, “And when it feel good to you it’s good for real/ And when it’s real baby that’s how it’s supposed to feel/ Testify,” and took him seriously. Imagine she didn’t feel good or how it’s supposed to feel when she later heard Mannie Fresh’s rhymes. Isn’t there a wretched irony, not like the subtle ironies in Saul Williams’s or Outkast’s call and response treatments that rewire our expectations with new layers and resonate, but a shallow, disappointing irony, when Mannie Fresh demands an audience “make some noise” if he’s not ready to handle whatever noise comes back at him?

“The basic structure of call and response is straightforward,” says Craig Werner in A Change is Gonna Come. “An individual voice, frequently a preacher or singer, calls out in a way that asks for a response. The response can be verbal, musical, physical—anything that communicates with the leader or the rest of the group. The response can affirm, argue, redirect the dialogue, raise a new question. Any response that gains attention and elicits a response of its own becomes a new call. Usually the individual who issued the first call responds to the response, remains the focal point of the ongoing dialogue. But it doesn’t have to be that way. During the movement, Charles Mingus, fascinated with the political and spiritual implications of call and response, explored ideas of community based on the constant redefinition of the relationship between group and leader in ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’ and ‘Three or Four Shades of Blue.’”

In other words call and response ideally offers an apparatus flexible enough to redistribute power away from established centers and narratives, without the folly of regulated majority control. That makes it a handy tool for minorities and radicals, including feminists, but does that make every possible response valid? Or mean any response can never be inappropriate? According to Werner’s model, responsibility still rests within dynamic groups to rally around the most salient cry.

During composition of this essay, Lil Wayne received challenging responses to a line in his verse on Future’s “Karate Chop (Remix).” Apparently a propos of nothing else (the previous bar is “Bout to put rims on my skateboard wheels”), Wayne says “Beat that pussy up like Emmett Till.” The words offended women and black activists at the same time. A spokeswoman for Emmett Till’s family denounced the lyric and Lil Wayne. Within weeks the song got pulled from Future’s album arrangement and Mountain Dew dropped Wayne’s tour sponsorship. Today the line gets censored when you play the track on Spotify, although you can still listen to it in full on YouTube. Because Lil Wayne knows that Money isn’t just a town in Mississippi where Emmett Till was murdered, he apologized. But he showed he does know that too.

I do not recall any similar outrage after Kanye West rapped, on “Through the Wire,” “Just imagine how my girl feel/ On a plane scared as hell that her guy look like Emmett Till.” Although it seems nearly as culturally blasphemous to compare his own face after a car accident to the bloodied corpse of a Civil Rights martyr, when you heard it you probably thought something instead like, “Look how conscious Kanye is! Even though this song is nothing but a little autobiographical parable, however raw and inspiring, plus a bunch of self-aggrandizement, now a younger generation can add to its vocabulary this referent for bodily damage that has served as severe lesson and propeller in the African American struggle for half a century. Way to go Yeezy!”

What in fact probably saves Kanye is that he didn’t also use the image to illustrate an act of sexual violence. But “rap after all is an art form where shit and motherfucker and pussy are little more than tics or punctuation,” David Foster Wallace says, and Wayne’s ferocious turn of phrase is, as discussed before with respect to drugs, in its shaded heart a complicated way of saying how forcefully his music (including now this significant cultural reminder) penetrates the community of listeners. In this sense, it has the same performative meaning as “I’m gonna run through that pussy like a Vandal” from “Pussy Money Weed,” only with a more current and identifiable historical reference. Because he used the name in this extra, figurative way, Lil Wayne arguably gave it fairer use than Kanye did.

And the thing is Wayne’s not wrong. Wrapping his statement in such a provocative call, and the accompanying uproar that answered, only guaranteed its reach extended beyond the “young, black men” already “immersed in Lil Wayne’s music.” Some observers, Future included, acknowledged how the controversy did indeed introduce Emmett Till’s story to a new audience.

Now, lest you think this generous interpretation of rap’s more vile content puts me on a side with the enforcers who shut down the young feminist’s objection to Mannie Fresh’s lyrics, what I’m doing is drawing a parallel between heavies ejecting that lady and the chilling forces trying to silence Lil Wayne. A gender debate may find these examples on different ends of one problem, but the conversation here is about conversation itself. I won’t venture to blow up any secret artistic intent in the union of whores and cocaine on Mannie Fresh’s penis, but, whatever’s right or wrong in that material, its performance becomes null when it forbids questioning and ongoing dialogue. One bit Kanye got right was mentioning how Emmett Till looked. Till’s mother’s insistence on allowing news photographers to take pictures of her son in an open casket became one of the most powerful incidences of call and response in the Civil Rights movement. Transmitting those disturbing images across the world mobilized thousands in outcry against the dual injustices of lynching and a Southern legal system that acquitted his killers. Mamie Till’s action broadcast a very indelible legacy still relayed by today’s rap stars, but her surviving family would close the lid on that legacy out of preference for good taste. The way the girl at the Mannie Fresh show used her naked body to attract attention may have undermined her point about sexualized exploitation of women, but in reorienting the gathering around her response she revealed a similar grasp on the strength of imagery to challenge a crowd and move people in new directions. In realizing its opportunity as an agent for freedom, conversation must remain ongoing and pass to new voices and new forms. On the other hand, backlash against dangerous art often helps enhance its transgressive power, and potentially engages new receivers. If the art doesn’t surrender, trying to put boundaries around it only makes it more volatile.

Even when call and response operates at its most straightforward, its rhythm can’t be regulated. Communication steps to a whole new level.

Unpredictable returns are the bass and inquiry is the treble.

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