Listening Session #10

Missy Elliott – Lose Control / Cybotron – Clear

»Music make you lose control! Music make you lose control! Let’s go!« – Boom and Clap Boom and and Clap and! On top of it all, this ice-cold chromatic synthesizer arpeggio looping non-stop. Everything about this track is iconic. Fatman Scoop’s signature commando voice, the self-surpassing drum pattern, Missy Elliott’s decelerated half-time rap. »Plan rocker, show stopper / flo fropper, head knocker / beat staller, tail dropper / do ma thing motherfuckers.« Three years earlier, on her track »Work It« four bell-like bars of »Take Me To The Mardi Gras« by Bob James had been enough for Missy Elliott to pump classic breakbeat Hip Hop from the block party back into her own 2002 future. Now on »Loose Control« she takes another step back (and forth) to the oldschool. The track is a sonic time travel capsule, aiming for a point prior to the differentiation of the futurhythmic continuum. Back before the soundculturally momentous proclamation of the trinity House / Techno / HipHop.

»Lose Control« sounds like electro – that somewhat uninspired umbrella term under which all the new forms of sound-cultural practice were discussed, which in the early 1980s radically claimed the new – precisely ›electronic‹, perhaps even ›digital‹ – sound technologies as their own aesthetic focal point. Afrika Bambaataa in New York’s South Bronx, Egyptian Lover in Los Angeles, 2 Live Crew in Miami – Missy Elliott could have chosen other reference points to position herself more clearly in a canonical hip-hop context. Instead, on »Lose Control« she just lets the iconic arpeggio from Cybotron’s »Clear« spiral non-stop over a prototypical 808 drum pattern. Boom and Clap Boom and and Clap and. Nothing else.

A little more is happening on Cybotron’s 1983 track »Clear«. The 808 kick is playing the same pattern as Missy Elliott, snare, open hat and the clap are slapping the backbeat together. A closed hat is punctuating the sixteenths at one and three. After twelve bars, said synth arpeggio rises above, steadily winding chromatically upward, yet never escaping the gravitational field of the TR-808. The chromatic steps upward are fed through a modulated delay and thus seem never ending, yet always having to start all over again. »Clear …« Juan Atkin’s sonorous voice is pushed down in the register via pitch-shifting. »Clear all this space …« Swoooosh sounds keep hissing left and right past the carousel of drum patterns and arpeggios. »Clear today …« A low-frequency bass sound is grounding The One every two bars.

Cybotron’s »Clear« is an anthem of this yet so ambiguous proto-genre Electro. Juan Atkins and Rick ›3070‹ Davis provide the Detroit counterpart to the canonical »Planet Rock« by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force. Both tracks work on the same principle, the drum pattens resemble each other to a high degree. Both make use of songs from the same Kraftwerk album in a wonderfully carefree way. Arthur Baker samples the »Trans Europa Express« for »Planet Rock«, the synth arpeggio of »Clear«, in turn, already made rounds in a similar way in Kraftwerk’s »Spiegelsaal«. But instead of paying homage to Kraftwerk as some paternal founding figures here, I hear these two tracks as deeply mythical songs themselves. As hymns of some of sound culture’s founding moments. »Planet Rock« sketches Hip Hop as a sonic space program. »Clear« anticipates techno’s avant-garde tabula rasa gesture. The term Electro precisely marks this brief, indecisive moment prior to the futurhythmic prophesy being redeemed.

Electro, however, perhaps also highlights something else. Another subliminal link between the two tracks in particular and the amorphous Electro continuum in general. Electro(nics) also switch(es) the rhythm tracks of these productions. In the early 80s, Electro and its differentiation into House, Techno, HipHop and all the hardly graspable further strands were kept going primarily by a machine that to this day represents the epitome of classic analog rhythm electronics before the takeover of digital Real Drums: the Roland TR-808.

I listen to Missy Elliott’s »Lose Control« again. Here, too, I think I hear an 808, just like on »Clear« or »Planet Rock«. The bulbous, low-frequency kick drum, the classic hand clap. And yet I can’t be sure at all that this is really an 808, the device itself – or not a sample pack, a software emulation, or a similar-sounding drum machine. By the time Missy Elliott releases »Loose Control« in 2005, ›the 808‹ has long been much more than a simple hardware thing. Pumped up by the roaring Fatman Scoop, I’m thinking, ›The machine is a rhythmachinic epochal threshold.‹ Missy Elliott starts rapping now: »Beat staller, tail dropper / do ma thing motherfuckers …« I’ve actually always understood ›beat scholar‹ and still find this an apt line. B-Girl Miss-E is obviously a beat researcher, a breakbeat scientist, precisely dissecting such sound-cultural historical thresholds again and again in her productions.

This Listening Session is a translation from the book ›Futurhythmaschinen‹. Drum-Machines und die Zukünfte auditiver Kulturen by Malte Pelleter. The book (in german language) can be accessed here.

Citation: Pelleter, Malte (2020): ›Futurhythmaschinen‹. Drum-Machines und die Zukünfte auditiver Kulturen. Hildesheim: Olms und Universitätsverlag. 267-269.