Samstag, 7. Februar 2009

Look out for the OVC, or: The Great Historical Divide

In late 1983 a strange, almost instrumental track dropped on the world like a monolith from outer space and subsequently enjoyed a surprising success in the pop charts. Surprising, because it couldn't be any farther from the feel-good pop of the times. It's a sparse and minimal track – a jam, as the title says. The only constant element is the trademark beat, the rest has an improvised feel. There are some space effects, a dominant and dark bass that chips in from time to time, and a short, menacing synth line that's slicing through the rest every now and then. On top of it there are some evil vocals which are completely vocoderized, kind of like Scorpio's evil twin.

So what's interesting about this track (apart from the fact that it is seriously dope, and apart from the fact that 2 french guys were clearly impressed by those space helmet outfits 15 years later)?

The Jonzun crew were a group of musicians fronted by the brothers Larry, Michael and Soni Johnson who had left their native Florida in the 1970s. In their new hometown of Boston, isolated from the subcultural revolutions that were taking place in New York at the same time, they invented their own version of electro funk, arriving at similar results as Afrika Bambaataa. While Bambaataa's approach consisted of an „Anything goes“ recklessness – the infusion of white German electronic music into a genuine black American tradition, creating an improbable cross-cultural hybrid -, the Jonzun brothers' electro funk emerged out of funk's own potentials. You could say they were standing on the shoulders of American pioneers that had already begun integrating electronic aspects into their music, namely the p-funk created and popularized by bands such as Parliament / Funkadelic or the electronic funk of bands like Zapp.

But that's not the whole story. Ironically there were 2 versions of Pack Jam and the genealogy of that jam is a textbook illustration of the great historical divide that the 1982 release of Afrika Bambaataa's Planet Rock meant for all of music. The first version was called Pak Man and it was released on a small Bostonian label in 1982, a few months before Planet Rock saw the light of day. Musically it is almost identical to the later version and it already featured the p-funk influenced „clappy“ beat with the spooky reversed-snare effect. The drums were played live – even on later records the Jonzun Crew still used live drums which might be seen as a refusal to completely disconnect from their older, pre-electronic musical roots:

For comparison, here's a contemporary funk track, The Dazz Band's „Let it whip“:

Pak Man was re-released as Pack Jam in 1983 on the newly founded Tommy Boy label, the same label that had unleashed Planet Rock. The 1983 version has a much fatter, in-your-face sound but apart from that it's almost identical to the former – with the exception of a slight yet decisive detail: an ominously ascending synth melody that wasn't part of the 1982 version but which is almost identical to a synth melody in Planet Rock. And as if that wasn't quite enough reference (or rather, reverence) they even put a little orch5-like orchestral stab at the end ... just like the famous orchestral hit in Planet Rock. Hearing Planet Rock, the Jonzun brothers must have immediately realized the connection to what they were doing and decided to change their song in order to place themselves in this tradition and context even more ostentatively. Here's Pack Jam:

And here is the breakdown towards the middle of Planet Rock with the prominent synth melody (which in turn was heavily inspired by the dark romanticist nostalgia of Kraftwerk's Trans Europe Express):

So this is just an example how 1982 was a crucial point in time: New ideas tentatively surfaced at different places, branching out in an interdependent, rhizomatic way. Very quickly though, Planet Rock became the dominant paradigm that subsequentially absorbed and bundeled all other forces under its umbrella, creating a blueprint sound. Oh, and in case you are still wondering what the OVC was supposed to mean: It's the Outer Space Visual Communicator.

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